The Washington Times - August 10, 2012, 12:33PM

PHOENIX — It wasn’t always pretty, and it wasn’t the steamrolling that most would expect when the best team in baseball meets the worst, but the Nationals swept the Astros this week and they take their MLB-best 69-43 record to Phoenix where the streaky but dangerous Diamondbacks await.

But before they open their three-game set at Chase Field, a few thoughts, observations and leftovers…


– According to ESPN’s, the first of Michael Morse’s two home runs Thursday night went 434 feet. We may never know exactly how far Morse’s shot could’ve traveled as it clanked off some new signage that rises above the train tracks atop the stadium’s left field wall. His second home run, to right field at Minute Maid Park, was measured at 388 feet.

The first blast was Morse’s second-longest home run of the season, came off the bat 110.5 mph, and sent a message to his manager: He’s back.

“He really, today, reminded me of the way he swung the bat last year,” Johnson said as Morse’s batting average climbed back above .300 and he hit his ninth and 10th home runs of the season in the Nationals’ 5-0 victory.

Morse, who missed the season’s first two months with a torn right lat muscle, is just 61 games into his 2012 season. After a 2011 season in which he hit a home run once every 16.84 at-bats, he’s currently hitting one ever 25.1 at-bats.

Morse’s numbers have been superb for most of his season, evidenced by the fact that his average has hovered around .300 for much of it, but there’s always an adjustment period for players who miss significant time with injury and while Morse doesn’t know when that period ended, he gave the impression to his manager Thursday night that it had.

“Since he’s come back he looks like he’s almost sitting on the breaking balls,” Johnson said. “(Thursday) he was attacking the fastball and I like that in a hitter. I don’t like to spot them a couple fastball strikes and try to get your hits.

“I’m an offensive manager. I like attack and don’t let any fastballs pass that you can get a hold of and drive and that’s what he did (Thursday). I really liked his approach. It was outstanding. I just hope he can keep that thought process going.”

For his part, Morse acknowledged that he’d felt a bit late in the Nationals’ previous few games, struggling to get his front leg down in time to get his swing there in time but he was certainly on-time when he connected for home runs on Thursday.

For much of the season the Nationals wondered what their offense would really be able to do when it was fully healthy and had all their projected parts. They’ll never truly know as Wilson Ramos was lost for the season before they could get Morse and Werth back in their lineup, but when shortstop Ian Desmond is ready, the Nationals 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 could be Espinosa, Harper, Zimmerman, Morse, LaRoche, Desmond, Werth. That’s not a lineup too many pitchers will be looking forward to facing.

– The Nationals’ four-game series in Houston, and their four-game set before that with the woebegone Miami Marlins may have seemed like lesser series but they were important to the Nationals in one way: that they had to win them.

The Nationals know that while they’ve ascended the mountain at a rapid pace in the season’s first 112 games, in order to keep climbing they have to step on the teams below them. That’s just a fact of baseball life: good teams have to beat the bad ones to get where they want to be.

The Nationals went 7-1 in that stretch of games and have won six straight games. As the season inches ever closer to its home stretch, they’re on pace to win 100 games and have a 4 1/2 game cushion in the National League East. 

“You’ve got to do that,” Johnson said. “All good teams do that and we did it here. (But the Astros) are a good little team. I mean, their record is horrendous, I understand that, but they’ve got some good little players and they’ve got some pitchers.

“They battle you and they don’t make a lot of mistakes out there. People can say we were flat coming in here. No. We weren’t flat. Those guys got some talent over there too, they battled us every at-bat and this is a ballpark anything can happen in. I was proud of our guys this series. It wasn’t flat to me. We battled from the get-go.”

– Jordan Zimmermann was superb again Thursday night, continuing to state his case as one of the best starters in the National League. He’s still dealing with some of the shoulder soreness during his warmup that caused the Nationals to push back his start a day two turns ago. Both Zimmermann and Johnson said Thursday night that the soreness is a relative non-issue, particularly because it hasn’t impacted his performance.

Johnson said he has no plans to move Zimmermann back again but it’s clear the Nationals are being somewhat careful with him.

Zimmermann had thrown just 87 pitches in six relatively seamless innings Thursday night when Johnson went to his bullpen and the right-hander and said later that he’s got no desire to push him with even something slightly amiss. “He’s too valuable,” Johnson said.

Zimmermann’s next start will come Tuesday night in San Francisco.