ATLANTA — The Washington Nationals spent Sunday morning handing out handshakes and hugs as they learned they’d have three, possibly four, representatives on the National League All-Star team.
They spent the afternoon slogging through another 100-plus degree day in Atlanta — and picking up another win.
Red-faced and exhausted, they still packed up smiling. A 10-game road trip came to a close with another series victory. In beating the Braves 8-4, the Nationals opened July on a high note with their fifth victory in the past eight games. They finished the trip averaging just under 13 hits in their last seven and scoring at least five runs in each of them.
In eight games against the Braves, the Nationals, who lead the NL East by three games (the Mets played Sunday night), are 6-2.
“I’ve said all along we’re going in the right direction,” said manager Davey Johnson. “I know the talent here. I know what we’re capable of. 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.
“With [Ryan Zimmerman] and Michael Morse swinging the bat, we can have some fun in the second half. No doubt about it.”
On Sunday, it was Zimmerman.
The Nationals staked All-Star left-hander Gio Gonzalez to a four-run lead before he took the mound and as they continued to add on to it, Zimmerman was at the center. He finished 3 for 5, with a monster home run that gave the Nationals what turned out to be a much-needed fifth run. Since receiving a cortisone injection June 24, he’s hitting .378 with three homers and 13 RBI.
“I’m starting to feel better,” Zimmerman said, reaching the usually-tough Tim Hudson for a double and the home run. “Feeling a lot healthier. The past few days, the confidence has been going a little bit. I’ve just got to keep that momentum going and keep working hard.”
Gonzalez limited the damage as he worked through his first five innings. Having seen what the heat did to teammate Stephen Strasburg just the day before, Gonzalez was extra careful. He retreated to the clubhouse each half-inning to change his shirt and use cold towels to lower his body temperature.
He scattered just four hits and a run over the first five innings but got into trouble when he began the sixth at 98 pitches and promptly walked the first two batters.
Johnson thought about pulling him. He didn’t.
A three-run homer by Freddie Freeman followed. A five-run lead turned into two with one swing.
“If he’d have lost that one, that’d have been all on me because I went against my instincts,” Johnson said. “It’s 120 degrees out there and he’d already thrown 97 pitches after five…. I was killing myself. But the bullpen did a great job.”
The bullpen, and an offense that seems to have distances itself from the unit that failed to execute with runners on, that struggled to tack on runs late and that made their pitchers work with a minuscule margin of error.