- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 4, 2012

It would be foolish to think, even with the roars that came out of Nationals Park on this Fourth of July, that the Washington Nationals are detailing exactly how far there is between them and the rest of the National League. Those types of proclamations cannot be made after only 79 games and with the better part of three months remaining in the regular season.

They’re well-versed in the cliches, well-practiced in their measured tones when it comes to declaring or not declaring themselves as the team to beat in the race for the NL pennant.

“We have a good team and we know we have a chance to do something special,” is how third baseman Ryan Zimmerman put it. “But we also know that it’s July, and nothing’s ever been won in July.”

But there are certain realities about these Nationals, who beat the San Francisco Giants 9-4 on Wednesday on the back of four home runs for their second straight resounding victory over the NL West power.

They have the best pitching staff in the major leagues and a 47-32 record that was built largely in spite of an offense that was both injured and slumping for much of the season’s first half. No longer. In the past eight games, a team that only a week ago had a batting average hovering around .238 has averaged nine runs and 13.4 hits a game.

On Thursday, the Nationals will have been in first place 89 straight days. They’re also 4 1/2 games up on the New York Mets — their closest competition in the NL East — and have a favorable schedule ahead.

“You look back at the beginning of the year, and we all talked about it,” said outfielder Michael Morse, who combined with Zimmerman to hit back-to-back homers off Madison Bumgarner in the fifth inning. “And now, the same people that asked the questions are coming back, and you give them the: ‘I told you!’ kind of thing.

“There’s a lot of baseball left. But what’s good about this team is we really don’t know how good we can be. I think that’s what makes us so great: The sky’s the limit.”

Tuesday night, they beat two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, who is struggling to find the magic he once had. But Wednesday, they faced one who came in without caveat, and they beat him too. Tuesday they got a command performance out of their starter. But Wednesday, they picked up Edwin Jackson when he faltered in a three-run first inning and allowed him time to settle in.

“I always put it back to the middle of the lineup,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “Those are the guys who are your best hitters. And when they struggle, it has an effect on everybody else trying to do too much, trying to pick it up. The middle of the lineup is the key. When they do it, we’re pretty good.”

If that’s the measuring stick, the Nationals have been pretty good over the past 10 games. Since Zimmerman received a cortisone shot in the AC joint of his right shoulder, the third baseman has combined with Morse to hit .391 with six doubles, seven homers and 25 RBI. Depending on who the No. 5 hitter is — Adam LaRoche or Ian Desmond (who tied the game 3-3 with a two-run single in the third) — the heart of the order is hitting either .350 with 18 extra-base hits and 33 RBI, or .386 with 24 extra-base hits and 36 RBI.

And that production has impacted the rest of the lineup, too. Danny Espinosa has been hitting better of late, Bryce Harper is showing signs of busting out of the second mini-slump of his career. Even rookie catcher Jhonatan Solano, filling in for Jesus Flores for the day, broke a 3-3 tie with his second career home run in the fourth inning and added a single to bring his average to .393.

“There’s no way that this offense was going to be cold all year,” said Jackson, who allowed four earned runs off five hits and two walks in 5 2/3 innings. “It’s just a matter of time before they get hot. They’ve been in a groove.”

They’re not about to pop the champagne on a season not yet half-finished, but they’re past calling every victory against another good team a statement win. They’ve proved a lot. But there are still 83 games left.

“You’re not going to be a really good team unless you go up against good teams,” Johnson said. “That tests your merit. The hotter it gets here in competition, the more comes out in the individual. They seem to relish good teams coming in and rising to the occasion.

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