Nationals well positioned as bats come alive
Pitching, defense carried club while Zimmerman was injured
WASHINGTON -- The Nationals enter Thursday's game against the Cardinals in fifth place, 10 1/2 games behind the Phillies in the National League East. However, they are showing signs of improvement.
They are six games behind the Braves in the Wild Card race and only four games (32-36) from the .500 mark, thanks to back-to-back wins over the Cardinals on Tuesday and Wednesday, in which they combined for 18 runs on 28 hits.
Is it too early to think the Nationals could make a nice run and compete for a playoff spot? Outfielder Laynce Nix and closer Drew Storen believe it can be done.
"Of course, we think we can do some things," said Nix, who was in the postseason last year with the Reds. "We are not out of it. We have a lot of games to play. You never know what can happen. It's not too early or not too late. Anything is possible."
Said Storen, "That's something we all want. ... If we can win games like [an 8-6 win on Tuesday], I think we will surprise people. That has been our goal all year, to get there and really show people that we are going to turn this around."
The reason for the positive thinking: Washington has improved its pitching and defense, which were both near the bottom of the league last year.
Entering Thursday's game against the Cardinals, they had not made an error since June 1 against the Phillies, a franchise-record 122 2/3-innings errorless streak that raised their team fielding percentage to a tie for second in the Major Leagues (.987).
"I think when we started the season, this team wanted to play better defense and play clean baseball. I think we have been doing that," right fielder Jayson Werth said.
The starting pitchers and relievers have carried the team so far, ranking sixth in the National League in ERA. Before Yunesky Maya's bad outing Tuesday, Washington starters allowed two earned runs or fewer 11 times in the previous 13 games. They were 6-3 with a 2.25 ERA during that span.
Manager Jim Riggleman said he has never had a starting staff that has thrown better than the one he has right now.
"I've never had a club that has done that anywhere. This is really good pitching. It's really a lot of good performances," Riggleman said. "When your starters get you 18 to 21 outs, you have a really good chance because you are going to get some matchups you prefer late in the ballgame."
Talk to members of the team, and they will tell you the Nationals need to start hitting better. However, they received a shot in the arm on Tuesday, when third baseman Ryan Zimmerman returned to the lineup after missing 58 games because of an abdominal strain.
"Zim's presence is just huge in the lineup," said second baseman Danny Espinosa, who homered on Wednesday. "We have good hitters, but to have his presence back. ... Just to have him back and the presence that he gives us in the clubhouse, on the field and against other teams, I think maybe we are getting pitches."
The Nationals' performance against the Cardinals raised their team batting average from .229 to .234, bumping them from a tie for last in the Majors to 28th.
First baseman Michael Morse, who homered twice on Wednesday, is 44-for-118 (.372) with 11 home runs and 31 RBIs in his past 36 games.
"This is much more than a hot streak," Riggleman said. "He's coming from the first three to four weeks of the season, when he was probably down in the .170 range or something. He's come a long way."
With Zimmerman in the lineup, the Nationals appear more relaxed at the plate, said F.P. Santangelo, a former big leaguer and baseball analyst for the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network.
"Ryan's first day back, what do they do? They score eight runs on 13 hits," Santangelo said. "As soon as they realize how good they are, they are some good offense away from being the talk of baseball, I think, because of the pitching and defense and the way they approach the game. If they start hitting, why not compete for the postseason?"
But Zimmerman will be the first to say that he can't carry the offense by himself. He needs help.
"I can't win eight games in one game -- nobody can do that," Zimmerman said. "Our defense and pitching has been unbelievable this year. Unfortunately, our offense has been banged up quite a bit. ... A player's not the same when they're playing through things. A lot of baseball players don't like to be the guy who's not playing through injuries, but a lot of times it's not helpful to the team.
"Our offense, unfortunately, has gone through a lot of that this year. I think we're figuring out it's not easy to plug guys into a Major League lineup. When we're healthy, we have a great lineup on paper, and I don't think it's out of reach to say we can get back to that this year."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.