- The Washington Times - Friday, July 27, 2012

MILWAUKEE — The number 20 doesn’t mean much on its own. The Washington Nationals’ outlook as the best team in the National League didn’t really change when they flipped the page from 19 games over .500 to 20 with an authoritative 8-2 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers on Thursday night at Miller Park.

Their playoff fortunes are not sealed, their goals for the season are not complete, despite matching the New York Yankees at 59-39 for the best record in the major leagues.

Twenty is a round number, though. A unique number. And manager Davey Johnson — who wears No. 5 — often says he likes to count in fives. In issuing the Brewers a good old-fashioned beatdown, the Nationals did what no Washington team has since the 1945 Senators finished the season 87-67: moved to 20 games over .500.

It might be a mark to celebrate, especially for those who lived through some of the darkest days of an organization whose brief history is filled with them. But for these Nationals, for this talented and winning incarnation, it is merely a nice benchmark on the way to something greater.

“We need to continue to build on it,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche, his 19th home run of the season leading off the second inning the kickstart to another offensive outburst that helped support seven scoreless innings from Edwin Jackson.

“I don’t think anybody in here is satisfied being 20 games up,” he added. “If you’d have asked us in spring training, I think we’d have said, ‘Yeah, we’ll take it.’ But now that we’re there I think we want some more. Time to get greedy and pile it on.”

These Nationals don’t appear to have much time for the undignified history of their predecessors. They do not revel in mentions that their 59 wins are as many as the 2008 and 2009 squads won all season. Ancient history. A different time and a different team.

Instead of collapsing last weekend when the Atlanta Braves sent two haymakers their way at the start of a pivotal four-game series between the division leaders, these Nationals have not wavered. They’ve reeled off six straight victories.

“We’ve got a lot of work [ahead],” Johnson said. “I said this in August of last year: We have the talent here, the makeup. If we just play up to our abilities, we’ll be fine. We can win a pennant.”

With their eyes squarely on separating themselves further from their competition, the Nationals are in a fortunate position.

A starting rotation that has been superb from Opening Day has been exceptional the last seven games, working to a 1.13 ERA in that stretch.

An offense that sputtered early with its main pieces either banged up or missing has found an extra gear in July. Even with shortstop Ian Desmond missing the majority of the team’s games in the second half, the Nationals have scored 117 runs in 22 games this month.

“Can’t reiterate enough when you have an offensive explosion like we had it definitely motivates you to want to come out and pump the strike zone, and let the defense play behind you,” Jackson said, his performance epitomizing that philosophy as he worked into and out of trouble for much of the night but made big pitches when he needed to.

And 42 of their final 64 games will be against teams that currently have below .500 records, including the next three they’ll play in this four-game set with the Brewers.

“In a lot of games this year we’ve laid it on them early and then let off,” LaRoche said. “We’ve had a lot of teams down, as far as individual games go, and just kind of not stepped on their neck. We’re letting them up. Luckily we’ve won a ton of those games, but it’s important now that yeah, we’re 20 games over. We’ve got some momentum going now. Keep it going and keep putting runs up there.”

The Nationals had no trouble with that on Thursday. Led by multi-hit days from LaRoche and Michael Morse and a three-run knockout punch of a triple by Steve Lombardozzi in the second inning, they chased Yovani Gallardo after five innings, tagging him for four runs in the second and three more in the fifth. They tacked on another in the seventh and did most of their damage (five hits, eight baserunners and six runs) with two outs.

Their usual post-game beats blared through the speakers in the visitors clubhouse at Miller Park. The numbers said this win was significant. That this win was special. The Nationals refused to agree.

“[The best record in the majors means] nothing,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. “It’s July. If we have the best record in September or October, then you can talk about it.

“We just come out and perform each night and try to win each night. If that puts us up there with the best teams in the league, then we’ll take it. We have a long ways to go.”



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