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Nats' lineup producing at last

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Nats' lineup producing at last

ATLANTA -- For three months, the Nationals insisted they could boast a potent lineup, if only they could get several injured players back healthy and get a few slumping regulars going at the plate.

Then Ryan Zimmerman received a cortisone shot in his ailing shoulder and Michael Morse started getting his timing back after missing eight weeks with a torn lat muscle, and the rest of the Nationals started reaping the benefits that came with the resurgence of those two stalwarts.

The end result is a lineup that suddenly is capable of carrying this first-place club, even on days when the pitching staff has a few hiccups, as was the case Sunday during an 8-4 victory over the Braves.

Over the final six games of this road trip through Colorado and Atlanta, the Nationals hit a collective .345, averaged 8.5 runs and 13.6 hits per game, mashing out 24 doubles and 13 homers in the process.

Is this more of a true reflection of the lineup they envisioned all along?

"No question," manager Davey Johnson said. "I've said all along we're going in the right direction. I know the talent here. I know what we're capable of, and to see us start doing it is more like us. Nine hits a ballgame, that should be our low with the talent on this ballclub."

The Nationals recorded exactly nine hits during this series finale on another sweltering afternoon at Turner Field when the thermometer read 101 degrees at first pitch and got as high as 104 degrees during the fifth inning.

Three of those hits came from Zimmerman, all of them driving in runs. The veteran third baseman roped a two-run double in the top of the first, belted a towering home run off Tim Hudson in the fifth and then added an RBI single up the middle in the ninth for his first 4-RBI game of the season.

Owner of a .218 average when he received the cortisone shot in his shoulder one week ago, Zimmerman has 14 hits (seven of them for extra bases) and 13 RBI in eight games since. He's raised that batting average to .241 and has raised his slugging percentage 61 points (to .366).

"We're getting healthier," he said. "We're getting more consistent. The more you can throw out the same lineup, the more consistent you're going to be. For the first half of the year, we've kind of had to shuffle things around. It's not easy to score runs when different guys are in different places and you don't really get to settle into the role."

The Nationals needed the offense on Sunday after watching All-Star Gio Gonzalez labor to finish what was shaping up to be a quality start. The left-hander allowed just one run on four hits through his first five innings, but with a pitch count at 98 under those sweltering conditions, Johnson thought about turning to his bullpen at that moment.

Convinced by Gonzalez and members of the coaching staff to leave his starter in, Johnson was beating himself up later after watching Gonzalez issue two straight walks and then a three-run homer to Freddie Freeman that brought the Braves to within two runs.

"It's 120 out there," Johnson said. "I mean, I was sweating more in this one than I was yesterday. It was really hot, and he'd already thrown 98 pitches after five and I said: 'Man, go hitter by hitter with him.' And everyone was telling me how good he was throwing, and I said: 'Well, he's from South Florida, maybe he'll be all right.' And then, boom! I was killing myself."

Turns out Johnson had no need to beat up on myself, because his lineup added two key insurance runs in the ninth and his bullpen shut the door on the Atlanta lineup, with Craig Stammen, Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard combining to toss four scoreless innings.

Thus the Nationals head home still in firm possession of the top spot in the NL East, not to mention the best record in the NL altogether.

They'll close out the season's first half this week against the Giants and Rockies, then gear up for a pennant race knowing their once-lowly offense is now capable of doing its part to support the game's best pitching staff.

"I'm excited for the second half," rookie Bryce Harper said. "Everybody is excited for the second half. For Zim to come back and Morse to come back pretty strong like they are, to get Jayson Werth back pretty soon, it's going to boost another part of the offense. Consistency is huge. And that's what you see in our whole lineup right now. Everybody has been swinging it well, and hopefully we can take it into the second half and get going."

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Nationals set to enter defining seven-game stretch

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Nationals set to enter defining seven-game stretch

WASHINGTON -- Most baseball managers try to operate in monochromatic fashion. They see one goal each day, and it only rests in those 24 hours. Some -- like Davey Martinez -- claim they don’t look at the standings in June. His standard message is to “win today” then move to tomorrow.

Human nature often runs interference on compartmentalization. It even crept up on Martinez on Sunday morning when in the midst of an answer about Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner playing daily. 

“For me, this is a big week,” Martinez said. “We have a chance to make up some ground here. I want these guys readily available to play.”

He’s right. The claim of significance is valid for once in mid-June, not a concept drummed up by overzealous television promos or interminable Internet space. 

The Nationals have seven games in seven days against two teams near the top of the division. Damaged Philadelphia arrives Monday. The Phillies’ bullpen is hurting and ineffective. Bryce Harper could miss the All-Star Game for just the second time in his career. Philadelphia is 6-8 in June. Meanwhile, Atlanta is rolling along. Its lineup remains deep, the pitching functional and Dallas Keuchel set to make his debut here in D.C. next weekend. The Braves hold a 2 ½-game lead in the not-so-great National League East. 

“Not thinking too big picture,” Adam Eaton said. “But knowing we have an in-division rivalry, we’ve got to win those games. It’s important. We’re trying to chase at this point. Not to put too much emphasis on it, but we need to play some really competitive baseball. And we shouldn’t beat ourselves these next four games. Play good baseball and not beat ourselves. If we play the brand of baseball we know how to play, and play clean, we have a good chance.”

Washington is five games under .500. Days are clicking off the calendar. Departing along with them are opportunities to chop at an 8 1/2-game deficit in the division. Following this week, only seven games against Philadelphia remain. However, 13 with Atlanta remain on the schedule, including seven in 10 days in September. The question is if those will matter. Sink this week and they won’t. Pull off a deficit-halving six of seven and everything changes. 

This week’s ramifications will first be felt on the phone lines in a month. The non-waiver trade deadline arrives July 31. Drag back to a double-digit deficit this week and plunk down the “for sale” sign. Rocket through the week and perhaps reinforcements will be found.

Monday brings a dreaded series opener. The Nationals are 6-17 in the first games of series this season. No one knows why. It doesn’t make sense. But, here they are, incapable of winning a first game and constantly playing from behind.

Patrick Corbin will be on the mound attempting to counter the trend. He, like the team when a new opponent shows up, has been in arrears the last three games. Corbin’s ERA dipped to 2.85 following a 116-pitch shutout of Miami on May 25. He’s been bludgeoned since. His ERA is up to 4.11, he will start twice this week, and the Nationals need him to right his ills.

Friday, Corbin threw a bullpen session focused on his line to the plate. Pitching coach Paul Menhart describes what they are trying to accomplish to get Corbin back to the version he was earlier this season:

“His lines and his east-west motion have made it very difficult for him to get the ball to where he wants it to be,” Menhart said. “He needs to be more direct to the plate and have more of a north-south rotation with his upper body and being more stable lower-half wise will allow him to do that and have his deception and hide the ball better and keep that tunnel.”

Corbin agreed. He doesn’t watch much video to cure ruts. He also doesn’t want too much information. The team’s analytics trackers have informed him his arm slot remains in a good place. He thinks his body is still in a running at a high level, dismissing any correlation between his struggles and the workload against Miami. He’s also going through the most common element of reduced success: trying not to chew on it too much.

“I think when I’m away from the field, you think about it more,” Corbin told NBC Sports Washington. “You’re frustrated about it a little bit -- what the heck is going on? But when you get here, you just try to work, try to do things to get better. That’s how I approach it. I’m just looking forward to my next start on Monday going out there and trying to get back to how I know I can pitch.”

Philadelphia arrives after being thumped in Atlanta on Sunday, 15-1. Washington had the opposite day in a 15-5 win. Monday night starts a reckoning of sorts for both. The Nationals will send out their three high-end starters during the four games. Philadelphia is trying to right itself and not let the Braves get out of touch at the top of the division. So, even for the one-day-at-a-time crew, the coming seven carry significant weight, and they’re finally admitting it.

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Nationals call up Adrian Sanchez, place Kyle Barraclough on 10-day injured list

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Nationals call up Adrian Sanchez, place Kyle Barraclough on 10-day injured list

WASHINGTON -- Manager Davey Martinez wasn’t sure postgame Saturday what’s wrong with reliever Kyle Barraclough.

The right-hander’s velocity is down, his slider flat and too true, his results poor. Barraclough left the mound Saturday at dusk with a 6.39 ERA. He’s allowed seven home runs in 25 ⅓ innings this season. Little he has tried has worked. And his time on the team may be short.

Utility infielder Adrian Sanchez will join the team Sunday. Sanchez’s departure from Double-A Harrisburg was reported Saturday night by Mick Reinhard, who covers the Senators, and noted Sanchez’s early removal from the game.

Barraclough will be the one leaving to make room for Sanchez on the roster, the Nationals placing him on the 10-day injured list with radial nerve irritation Sunday. Barraclough could be sent on an extended rehabilitation in the minor leagues, as the Nationals did with Trevor Rosenthal. At a minimum, Washington goes from an eight-man bullpen to a five-man bench, finally delivering Martinez more versatility at the plate and in the field.

Barraclough and left-hander Tony Sipp were rarely used in the last three weeks. A week passed between appearances for Barraclough from the end of May to the start of June. Sipp pitched Sunday for just the fifth time since May 24.

Removing Barraclough from the roster is another layer of indictment for the Nationals' offseason bullpen plan. They acquired Barraclough via trade with Miami for international slot money. He was supposed to pitch the seventh inning on a regular basis, Rosenthal the eighth and Sean Doolittle the ninth. That lineup has been disastrous outside of Doolittle, compromising the entire season.

Rosenthal’s travails are well-documented. He pitched again Saturday, walked the first batter on four pitches, walked the second batter, then allowing a single to load the bases with no outs. He eventually allowed just a run. His ERA is 19.50 following the outing. It’s the first time this season Rosenthal’s ERA is under 20.00.

While trying to fix Rosenthal, and trying to hang on with Barraclough, the Nationals have turned to Wander Suero and Tanner Rainey to handle the seventh and eighth innings ahead of Doolittle. Few would have predicted that combination before the season began. Despite the relative concern, no one would have predicted the Nationals’ bullpen to be among the worst in the league for much of the season, but has turned out to be just that.

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