Nationals hit halfway point on a high

Nationals hit halfway point on a high
June 30, 2013, 6:15 pm
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NEW YORK — There have been plenty of days over the last three months when the Nationals don't look anything like a World Series contender, an offensively challenged, defensively sloppy bunch that has put forth way more lifeless performances this season than anybody expected.

But there have also been a handful of days — though admittedly only a few, and usually scattered about — when these Nationals do put it all together and walk away from the ballpark having every reason to believe they can go on the kind of sustained tear that defined their breakthrough 2012 season.

Today was one of those days. Whether it's a positive omen of more good things to come or just another blip in a mediocre season remains to be seen. But as they showed during a 13-2 demolition of the Mets, the Nationals do have the ability to overwhelm any opponent they face.

"We know we've got the lineup that can go out any given day and put up 15 hits and 10 runs, and it just hasn't happened," said Adam LaRoche, who ignited this offensive explosion with a second-inning homer off Zack Wheeler. "This isn't going to happen every day, obviously, but I think it should a lot more often than it has."

The season is now officially halfway complete, and the Nationals sit one game over the .500 mark at 41-40. They've hovered right at, right above or right below sea level for the last six weeks, never getting real hot, never getting real cold. But they've now won seven of their last 11 games, and tomorrow they'll get their most-important player back after a lengthy absence.

When Bryce Harper has been in the Nationals' lineup, they've gone 25-18, a .581 winning percentage that over a full season equates to 94 wins. When Harper hasn't started — as has been the case since he landed on the disabled list with a knee injury one month ago — they've got 16-22, a .421 winning percentage that equates to a 68-win season.

The 20-year-old outfielder's return can only be viewed as a major step forward for this team.

"There's not a lot of those guys just kind of hanging around," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "It'll be nice to get him back. It definitely makes our team better."

Not that the Nationals needed Harper on this day, not with their lineup torching Wheeler for five early runs and then piling on against the Mets bullpen for eight more runs late.

Making his highly anticipated home debut after opening his career with two straight road starts, Wheeler cruised through the top of the first inning on 13 pitches before the Nationals decided to do something manager Davey Johnson has been pleading for them to do all year: Attack an opposing pitcher's fastball early in the count.

"I like that," Johnson said. "That prevents them from throwing that many pitches over and getting ahead. It's awful tough hitting with two strikes all the time, and we didn't do that today."

No, they didn't. LaRoche ambushed Wheeler by crushing his first pitch of the second inning to right field for his 12th homer of the season, and his teammates followed suit. Ian Desmond laced an RBI double. Kurt Suzuki delivered a run-scoring single. Denard Span added his own RBI double. Jayson Werth homered in the third, putting the Nationals up 5-0 and spoiling the rookie flamethrower's New York debut.

"When a guy throws upper 90s, it's tough to look for anything else still be able to react on that," LaRoche said. "So that's the plan: Make him throw strikes, make sure he's going to pound the zone and get ready for the heater."

Buoyed by that comfortable lead, Gio Gonzalez was free to go right after the Mets, which he did ... though only after a not-so-friendly reminder from his batterymate.

After giving up a one-out single and then walking David Wright despite being ahead in the count 0-2 in the bottom of the first, Gonzalez got a visit from Suzuki. The two know each other extraordinarily well, having teamed up in Oakland before each was traded to Washington. So Suzuki isn't afraid to get in the left-hander's face when circumstances demand it.

"That's just knowing each other," Suzuki said. "He doesn't take it personally. He knows. I really don't get on him much. Sometimes I do, but I just made sure today I really stayed on him because I want him to do well."

Gonzalez took the message to heart, because from that point on he was as aggressive as he's ever been as a big leaguer. He retired 17 of the next 18 batters and ultimately departed after seven shutout innings, having thrown 84 of his 119 pitches for strikes, establishing a new career-high.

"That's a shock to me, to get that many strikes," said Gonzalez, who had never thrown more than 79 strikes in any major-league outing. "I'm used to seeing more balls than strikes. ... I think all the credit in the world goes to our catcher. He does a great job helping me out, getting me out of innings."

The Nationals certainly didn't need to tack on any insurance runs late to ensure Gonzalez earned his fifth win of the season, but they decided to go hog-wild against New York relievers Brandon Lyon and Anthony Recker (a backup catcher who actually took the mound for the ninth inning) and turn a 5-run lead into a 13-run lead that would have represented the club's most-lopsided victory if not for the Mets getting a 2-run homer from John Buck off Ian Krol with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.

Thus concluded the first half of the most-anticipated season since baseball returned to the District in 2005. At 41-40, the Nationals are not nearly as good as everyone hoped, but neither have they dug themselves too big a hole.

They're about to get their best player back on the field. Their trio of aces is peaking into top form. And, as they showed today, they're capable of scoring a bunch of runs.

Now they just have to put that all together over the next three months and become the contender everybody, including themselves, expected them to be all along.

"Every team would want to be in first place and be 10, 15 games over .500," Zimmerman said. "That's not always how it works. We've gone through a lot of things, and we're still in position to make a run, which is all you can ask for."