When the Washington Nationals dispersed for the three-day All-Star break a couple of weeks ago, manager Davey Johnson left them with a message: “We’ve got work to do.”
The Nationals’ task at the break was tall, but when they opened the second half with seven losses in their first eight games, their underachieving season reached a new low.
They had run out of ways to explain their issues. Run out of reasons why a team as talented as theirs and minimally altered from last year’s successful unit was stumbling so often this season.
And yet, as they packed their clubhouse Sunday afternoon, preparing for a five-game road swing through Detroit and Milwaukee, the Nationals were celebrating their fourth victory in the past five games — and the most lopsided win in team history.
It was a 14-1 demolition job of the New York Mets that featured Wilson Ramos’ first grand slam, Taylor Jordan’s first victory, 4-for-4 days from Ian Desmond and Denard Span, and collective season highs in hits (18) and runs (14).
From the depths they’d descended to Friday afternoon, the Nationals had their first winning streak in three weeks.
“That’s the team I want to see,” said Ramos, who matched a career high with five RBI and clobbered a 90-mph fastball from Carlos Torres into the visitors’ bullpen for his third-inning grand slam that put the Nationals up 8-0.
“That’s the team from the last few years. That’s the team everybody knows. Today was a great example of what we can do.”
Seven of the Nationals’ eight starting position players had a hit and either drove in or scored at least one run. Jayson Werth continued his torrid July by going 2 for 3. Ryan Zimmerman was 3 for 4. Bryce Harper doubled in two.
After a 13-game stretch earlier this month in which the Nationals went 7 for 81 with runners in scoring position, they took advantage almost every time they had one there Sunday, going 9 for 12. They could not pinpoint a reason for the sudden difference.
“We got hits,” deadpanned Zimmerman. “I guess that’s different. I think [Torres] made mistakes and we put good swings on it.”
While the top of the order had a productive day, the Nationals’ real damage was done by the bottom half.
Their six through eight hitters, Desmond, Span and Ramos, were a combined 10 for 12 with two doubles, two homers, one walk, 10 RBI and eight runs scored. Span, who homered for the first time in 425 plate appearances Saturday, sent his second of the year into the right field seats in the sixth.
“Just another day at the ballpark,” joked Span. “I told you yesterday I might hit 30, and I’m on pace to do that, if I can just keep it up. So any more questions?”
They emerged as the type of offensive team the Nationals thought they had put together when the first buckets of balls were being muddied in Viera, Fla., six months ago.
Jordan held the Mets to just one run over six innings and the Nationals’ lead was such that by the time he was pulled the game’s outcome was all but decided.
“The talent is there,” Johnson said. “I’ve never given up on the talent. It’s just, we need to start expressing it more often. … That was so good.”
The most oft-discussed culprit for the Nationals’ struggles has been their offense, which has scored one run or fewer a remarkable 28 times, but it is hardly the only reason. Between the struggles of Dan Haren and the injuries to Ross Detwiler, the back end of the Nationals’ rotation has been its own question mark.
In the past three games, the Nationals have received superb starts from Ross Ohlendorf, Haren and Jordan. They’ve combined to allow three total runs over 20 innings — a 1.35 ERA.
Pulling to within eight games of the Braves, and potentially jumping to 7 1/2 games back depending on the outcome of Atlanta’s late game, their rotation is set to run through once more this week with five games over the next seven days.
Then the Nationals will have Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann lined up for an important series against the Braves beginning Aug. 5.
“I think the pitching’s coming around and obviously the hitting’s coming with it,” said Johnson, pointing out how his starters would line up for this week and next.
“We’re right where we need to be.”