Aug 26, 2015, 12:34 AM EST
There was no shortage of tangible evidence Tuesday night what the Nationals’ lineup is capable of doing now that it is complete for the first time all season. Wilson Ramos’ 2-run homer in the bottom of the second. Yunel Escobar and Ian Desmond’s 2-out RBI doubles later. And, most notably, Ryan Zimmerman’s sixth-inning grand slam that blew the game wide open and ensured this 8-3 victory over the Padres.
There was less-tangible evidence of it, as well, though, in the form of several long, well-executed at-bats by a host of Nationals hitters. Some didn’t even result in a baserunner, but all helped contribute to the overall effort and certainly helped knock San Diego starter James Shields out in the sixth inning with his pitch count a whopping 121.
“Great at-bats,” manager Matt Williams said. “When our guys are seeing the baseball well, we get those at-bats. … It just extends innings for us. It ups the pitch-count for the opposing pitcher. It gives us opportunity. Good ‘grind’ at-bats tonight.”
That this came the same night the Nationals fielded a complete, healthy lineup for the first time all season may not have been coincidental. With Denard Span returning from a 7-week stint on the DL with a lower back injury, Williams was able to construct a lineup that simply looked more imposing on paper: Span, Jayson Werth and Anthony Rendon at the top; Bryce Harper, Escobar and Zimmerman in the middle; and Desmond and Ramos at the bottom.
Those last two had often been forced to hit cleanup and fifth earlier this summer, when the Nationals lineup was cobbled together every afternoon. Now they’re hitting seventh and eighth, still more than capable of coming up with big hits no matter their batting position.
“To have everyone back, and to see that, is nice,” Zimmerman said. “It doesn’t mean that we automatically score runs every game. We still have to go out there with a good approach and grind out at-bats. But it’s nice to have everyone.”
Especially when they can string together quality at-bats like they did Tuesday. Nationals batters managed to produce 18 plate appearances of at least five pitches, 12 of them coming vs. Shields in the first 5 2/3 innings.
As happy as Ramos was about his second-inning homer, he seemed more proud of his 10-pitch at-bat in the bottom of the fourth, even though it ended in a strikeout.
“That at-bat made me feel confident, because I fight all my at-bat,” said the catcher, now 5 for his last 10. “I don’t care about the strikeout. I just care about how good I feel at the plate right now.”
There was some controversy mixed in, during Harper’s sixth-inning at-bat, with one on and two out. He bounced a grounder to first, with the Padres’ Jedd Gyorko scooping up the ball and stepping on the bag for what he thought was the final out of the inning. Harper, though, reacted in pain, limping around the batter’s box, and the umpiring crew ruled it a foul ball off his right foot.
The only problem: No replay could definitively show the ball actually striking any part of Harper.
It wouldn’t have been a big deal, except San Diego reliever Mark Rzepczynski wound up walking Harper a couple pitches later. Then right-hander Bud Norris walked Escobar to load the bases, and then he served up Zimmerman’s grand slam on a 2-0 pitch, turning a 4-2 game into an 8-2 rout.
Harper played coy when asked about the foul ball ruling afterward.
“I’m just excited that Zim hit the homer,” he said. “That’s all I’m going to say.”
Padres manager Pat Murphy was less coy, going on a tirade against the umpires the following inning after seeing a replay of Harper’s swing that got him ejected.
Whatever actually happened, the Nationals took advantage of the situation. And thus they won for the fifth time in seven games, posting their first 3-game winning streak since the All-Star break.
They may not have gained any ground after the seemingly unstoppable Mets won yet again in Philadelphia. But for the first time in a long time, they know they’ve got all their pieces in place, hoping it didn’t happen too late to make a run at the division title.
“This lineup we have right now, this is what we wanted all year long,” Harper said. “We’re just going to get better as we play. And over this last month-and-a-half, it’s going to be a lot of fun for us. Everyone’s excited to get going. If we play like this, I think we’ll be just fine.”
FINAL NL EAST STANDINGS
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