- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 4, 2017

As the Nationals near the end of a stretch of 46 games in 48 days, manager Dusty Baker can often tell when guys need rest just looking at them. The Nationals‘ 46-game marathon ends Sunday, when the All-Star break begins.

“I’ll always have a conversation with them, and sometimes they’ll have input and other times I’ll just (rest them),” Baker said Monday. “It depends what I see. … When you’re fatigued, you increase your chance of an injury. So just trying to keep guys strong.”

Baker elected Tuesday to not start left fielder Brian Goodwin and rested first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, third baseman Anthony Rendon and catcher Matt Wieters.

But the Nationals still had Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy in the lineup — and that was plenty in an 11-4 win over the Mets in the team’s annual Fourth of July game at Nationals Park.

Harper and Murphy broke a 2-2 tie in the fifth inning, when the Nationals had five straight hits.

Harper, who finished 3-for-4, hit a single to right field, but Mets outfielder Jay Bruce had trouble fielding and it allowed Harper to advance to third while scoring Wilmer Difo. Murphy, batting behind Harper, came in and raked home Harper with another single.

The sequence was similar to the third inning where Harper and Murphy drove in runs back-to-back to give the Nationals a 2-1 lead.

Murphy, though, had an even better outing than Harper, slugging in two more runs when the bases were loaded in the bottom of the six. Murphy went 4-for-5 and tied his season-high of five RBIs against the Mets, his former team.

Murphy and Harper piled on late — with Harper adding another RBI single in the bottom of the eighth, making it 10-2, and Murphy immediately adding an RBI double to score Harper.

“Each inning when you’re able to get traffic out there, you just give yourself more opportunities to get that big hit,” Murphy said. “We just started to stack quality at-bats on top of each other.”

Harper and Murphy accounted for eight (seven earned) of the Nationals‘ 11 runs.

Murphy is now batting .405 and has 22 RBIs in 31 games against the Mets after leaving them to sign a three-year, $37.5 million contract with the Nationals in 2015.

“I’m sure he gets some satisfaction, which we all do, when you’re playing your former team,” Baker said. “I still do when I’m managing against my former teams. … The good thing about Murph is that no matter who he’s facing, like my old coach used to tell me and it took me awhile to learn this, is don’t give away at-bats.”

For an afternoon, it was easy to see why the Nationals have such a lead in the NL East. As much as the Nationals‘ bullpen has struggled, the Mets’ bullpen isn’t any better. And unlike the Nationals, the Mets don’t have the hitting to fall back on — the Mets entered Tuesday’s game batting .250 to Washington’s .276.

Baseball can be a funny sport, too.

Initially, pitcher Joe Ross appeared headed for a rough day. He gave up a home run in the first at-bat of the game to Mets shortstop Jose Reyes. He then repeated the same mistake in the fourth inning, throwing a first-pitch home run to Rene Rivera, who led off the inning, to tie the game at 2.

Ross’ start was a stark contrast to Mets starter Seth Lugo, who had a four-pitch first inning. But once the Nationals figured out Lugo, they cracked him and Lugo was pulled after the fifth inning in which he allowed four runs. Besides Harper and Murphy, Ryan Raburn had a two-RBI double in the inning to make it 6-2.

Ross, meanwhile, calmed down and had another efficient outing. He threw a career-high 114 pitches and pitched seven full innings.

Baker said before the game Ross’ conditioning has improved and he has altered his training to focus on running more. Ross, who is starting to become a reliable fifth pitcher for the Nationals, hasn’t allowed more than two earned runs in his last four starts, last doing so June 13 against the Atlanta Braves.

“Recently I’ve been feeling pretty good and feel like I’m staying stronger into the sixth, seventh inning which is obviously going to help close out a good start,” Ross said.

The Nationals also had a 3-run sixth inning. Besides Murphy’s two-RBI single, Adam Lind had an RBI groundout to score Harper and give the Nationals a 9-2 lead.

Blake Treinen pitched a scoreless eighth and Oliver Perez closed the game.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Washington Nationals game if the bullpen didn’t allow runs late — Perez gave up a 2-run homer to Bruce in the ninth. At that point, the game was already out of reach and the Nationals sealed the game on a fly out at the next at-bat.

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