- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 7, 2013

As Ryan Zimmerman made his way through the Washington Nationals’ dugout in the third inning Sunday, alternating high-fives with hugs from his teammates after his first-pitch grand slam, the crowd at Nationals Park cheered relentlessly. In a homestand that had already featured two curtain calls, it wanted another.

Zimmerman appeased the fans, quickly jumping to the dugout’s top step and offering a brief wave. In an 11-7 victory over the San Diego Padres that never felt as close as the final score, Zimmerman’s grand slam was just the opening salvo.

Still, he chuckled at the curtain call.

“I’ll take it, I guess,” Zimmerman said. “A third-inning grand slam? I guess we haven’t scored many runs.”

Indeed, the outpouring of support this past week may have been the result of a little pent-up admiration dying to come out.

In a season that has taken the Nationals from preseason World Series favorites to a six-week dance around the .500 marker, there was perhaps a shift on the team’s 5-2 homestand.

Sunday, on a blisteringly hot and humid day in the District, the Nationals’ final out brought them not only their first three-game sweep since April but also to within four games of the first-place Atlanta Braves in the National League East — the smallest that margin has been since May 20.

“It’s a long season, and momentum shifts can take place at any time,” said manager Davey Johnson, who just days earlier had said repeatedly, and frustratingly, that he “didn’t have the answer” to his team’s offensive struggles.

“We’ve played below our potential,” he said. “We’re coming around. That’s a good feeling.”

The Nationals spent much of the season’s first half languishing among the worst offensive teams in the major leagues. They returned home July 1 averaging 3.6 runs per game. Entering Sunday, when they scored three runs or more, they were 40-10. When they didn’t, they were 5-32.

But on this weeklong homestand, the Nationals averaged more than six runs per game, pounding out 43 in seven games. They scored at least five runs in five games. They’ve scored 10 or more only four times this season — three in the past eight days.

“Keep swinging like that, I think we’re going in the right direction,” said right-hander Stephen Strasburg, the least-supported starting pitcher in the major leagues.

On Sunday, every member of the Nationals’ starting lineup reached base at least once. Three of them — Denard Span, Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon — put together multihit days. Rendon’s third career home run, a two-run shot into the visitors’ bullpen in left field, came just two batters after Zimmerman’s slam.

After three innings, the Nationals had already scored more in the game than they had in any of Strasburg’s previous 16 starts this season. They tacked on four more in the fifth inning as the Padres‘ pitching and defense handed them walks and errors by the bundle.

Strasburg, who battled in the heat and struggled occasionally to grip the ball well, allowed four runs off seven hits, two walks and three hit batters in six innings. He also struck out nine.

Their pitching staff bent, allowing four runs from the sixth inning on and keeping it close enough that Johnson sat down at his postgame news conference acknowledging that it “didn’t feel like a laugher.” But it did not break.

When it was over, the Nationals were on their way to Philadelphia to begin a weeklong road trip before the All-Star break feeling as positive about things as they have all season.

“We feel good,” said right-hander Tyler Clippard, who pitched a scoreless ninth. “We feel like we’re playing [well] right now. I think that’s the most important thing. The standings are the standings. We can’t really control what the other teams are doing. Yeah, it’s nice to be four back with really not have played tremendously well up to this point. … I think we feel confident about where we’re at.”

“We can creep up a little bit,” Zimmerman added. “Atlanta is a good team. There’s a bunch of good teams in this division that we have to play. It’s not going to happen just like that. We have to continue to play the kind of baseball we have played for the past week, two weeks for the rest of the season to accomplish what we want to accomplish.”