NEW YORK — By the time Ian Desmond came to the plate in the top of the ninth inning Sunday afternoon, there was little drama left under the overcast skies at Citi Field. The Washington Nationals held an 11-run lead in an eventual 13-2 victory, and Desmond looked out at the mound to see Anthony Recker staring back at him.
That's Mets backup catcher Anthony Recker. Pitching.
Desmond crushed a two-run homer into the second deck in left field.
On the day the Nationals' maddeningly inconsistent first half of the season reached its mathematical midpoint, they put together their finest offensive performance of the year.
Facing prized Mets prospect Zack Wheeler, the Nationals pounded New York with 13 hits — 10 of which went for extra bases — as every starting position player had at least one hit and drove in at least one run.
"That was exciting," manager Davey Johnson said after his team won for the seventh time in 11 games. "That was a lot of good hitting."
Gio Gonzalez was superb for the Nationals again, augmenting their suddenly bountiful offense with seven shutout innings and peppering the zone with more strikes than he's ever thrown in his major league career.
Gonzalez finished the day having thrown 71 percent of his pitches for strikes, his highest percentage this season. He also got a season-high 17 swings and misses, an indication of just how good his stuff was in the thick, humid New York air.
"That's still a shock to me to get that many strikes," said Gonzalez, his ERA in June down to 1.79. "I'm used to seeing more balls than strikes."
And while Gonzalez pitched well enough that even a handful of runs would have likely been enough, it was the Nationals' offensive performance — the kind they thought they'd be seeing far more often than they have to this point — that stole the spotlight.
"I think we're capable of more than this," said Desmond, who added an RBI double to his 15th home run of the season. His 28 RBI in June set a Nationals record for the most runs driven in during a month. "Not being greedy or anything, but we have a good offense and we feel like we can score runs. We'll take it when we can get it."
"We know we've got the lineup that can go out any given day and put up 15 hits and 10 runs, and it just hasn't happened," said first baseman Adam LaRoche, who opened the scoring with a home run in a four-run second inning. "This isn't going to happen every day, obviously, but I think it should a lot more often than it has."
For months, Johnson has pleaded with his hitters to take a more aggressive approach at the plate. To attack pitchers, instead of forcing themselves into defensive situations.
Saturday, they jumped on Wheeler's fastball. They did well to hold off on his breaking pitches and forced him to put the ball over the plate. In his first two professional starts, Wheeler gave up just one extra-base hit on his fastball. The Nationals had four off it in the second inning alone.
Kurt Suzuki and Jayson Werth also homered for the Nationals. Denard Span doubled twice. Anthony Rendon and Roger Bernadina chimed in with doubles of their own. By the time it was over, it was the Mets' most lopsided defeat of the year, and the Nationals' biggest output.
"I like that," Johnson said. "That prevents them from throwing that many pitches over and getting ahead. It's awful tough hitting with two strikes all the time, and we didn't do that today.
"I got on Desi after [Wheeler] walked [Werth]. [I said], 'What in the world are you faking a bunt for? He's got to throw you one right down the middle.' He got a double on a fastball, but look first pitch and hit a double. Don't fake-bunt. You're leading this club in doubles, swing the bat. But that's the kind of attitude we've been developing. We've got to get off of that."
Their aggressiveness quotient will go up regardless Monday when they return home to open a four-game series against the Milwaukee Brewers — and have Bryce Harper waiting for them, ready to come off the disabled list.
The Nationals, who have vastly underachieved in comparison to the first half of their 98-win 2012 season, are 25-18 when Harper is in the starting lineup. They are a .581 team with him, and at 16-22 a .421 one without.
"We certainly have the talent [to play like we did Sunday]," Johnson said. "We've been kind of in a rut. But it'll be good to get Harp back. He's been very aggressive. We just need to keep that momentum going."
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