Red-hot Nats rediscover their power stroke

Red-hot Nats rediscover their power stroke
September 13, 2013, 12:30 am
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NEW YORK — There have been any number of impressive aspects to the Nationals’ late-season surge, but right near the top of that last has been the rediscovery of power up and down their lineup.

This was a lineup that was supposed to produce runs in bunches all season yet struggled mightily for more than four months. After getting swept by the Braves Aug. 5-7 — this is now universally known as the moment this season turned around — the Nationals sported some of the worst offensive numbers in baseball: a .240 batting average, .299 on-base percentage and .384 slugging percentage.

Well, check out their numbers in 32 games since that low point: a .288 batting average, .356 on-base percentage and .466 slugging percentage.

That last number was particularly boosted this week during the Nationals’ four-game sweep of the Mets, in which they blasted 13 home runs. That’s the most homers ever hit in a series at Citi Field, shattering the previous mark of seven.

More remarkable: The Mets didn’t even hit one home run during the series, making the Nationals the first team since the 1997 Tigers to out-homer an opponent by at least 13 during a single series.

And just about everyone in the lineup (plus some reserves) contributed to the onslaught: Ryan Zimmerman hit three homers; Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche and Wilson Ramos all hit two apiece; Anthony Rendon, Denard Span, Tyler Moore and Scott Hairston each hit one.

(Poor Bryce Harper and Ian Desmond, the only members of the regular starting eight who failed to connect in this series. Though Harper has the legitimate excuse of having not playing in the first two games due to his hip injury.)

“Everybody in the lineup has got power, maybe with the exception of Span,” said manager Davey Johnson, perhaps forgetting his leadoff man’s game-opening homer on Monday night. “We haven’t been as aggressive. We’re getting more aggressive. That was what I was harping on earlier in the year: Swing the bats early in the count, try to do some damage. It’s finally getting there.”

Whether it’s a more-aggressive approach, a more-relaxed approach or simply talented hitters finally producing the way they were expected to all along, it’s been a welcome development for the Nationals, who finally boast a lineup that inspires some fear in opposing pitching staffs.

“If we hit like we’re hitting right now, we’d be good all the time,” said Zimmerman, who has crushed eight home runs in his last 10 games and suddenly ranks seventh in the NL with 23 homers overall. “But it just didn’t work out like that. I think that’s why you go out and play the games. That’s why it’s hard to win in professional sports, because it’s hard to be consistent and do that kind of stuff. But we’re still going to play these games out and try and win as many as we can and hope we can somehow sneak in there.”

Though the odds remain heavily stacked against them — there’s still only a 2.7 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to coolstandings.com — the Nationals are at least making this thing interesting.

They now trail the Reds by 5 1/2 games for the NL’s final Wild Card berth, with 16 games to play. So, what needs to happen for the impossible to happen? Well, if the Nationals go 11-5 and Cincinnati goes 5-10, they’d each finish at 88-74 and play a one-game tiebreaker to determine which club advanced to the do-or-die NL Wild Card Game against either the Pirates or Cardinals.

In other words, it’s still the long shot of all long shots.

But as they have throughout this stretch, the Nationals aren’t letting themselves get caught up in the numbers. They’re just taking the field every night trying to win a ballgame, hoping in the end they’ve got enough time to pull off the impossible.

“It’s tough when you’ve got to rely on other teams to fall apart,” LaRoche said. “It’s never a good spot. We need to go win, but we’ve also got to count on a couple teams having some minor meltdowns. Flip a coin right now.

“All we can do is control the outcome of our game. We had a great road trip. Keep that going at home, and you never know. Crazier things have happened. We’re still not in a very enviable position.”