- The Washington Times - Monday, September 24, 2012

The early fall sun that settles over Nationals Park during day games became a menace during the Washington Nationals’ penultimate regular-season homestand. Jayson Werth couldn’t recall a tougher battle in any stadium in the major leagues, saying it “borders on ridiculous.”

With the prospect of playing playoff baseball during the day in Washington inching closer, the fly balls that turn into game-changers are a significant issue. On Sunday, it cost the Nationals. But Monday, in a 12-2 beatdown of the Milwaukee Brewers to earn a split of the four-game series, the Sun Monster, as Bryce Harper referred to it, reared its head in the Nationals’ favor.

And as Carlos Gomez struck a familiar helpless pose in center field and Werth’s routine fly turned into a two-run double in the fourth inning, it helped the Brewers lose.

“Payback,” manager Davey Johnson said.

But it was the swing two batters later, the one ferociously uncorked by third baseman Ryan Zimmerman that lined Marco Estrada’s 91-mph fastball into the right-center field seats for a three-run homer, and the vintage pitching of Jordan Zimmermann that won it for the Nationals.

“Nice to have a little laugher,” Johnson said as he sat down at his postgame news conference.

His team’s lead over the Atlanta Braves in the National League East moved back up to five games with nine to play, and the magic number to clinch the division crown dropped to five. Any combination of five Washington wins or Atlanta losses will do it.

It was perhaps even nicer to do it on the heels of an ugly, sloppy loss, with three-hit days out of Zimmerman and Danny Espinosa to go with multihit efforts from Werth, Kurt Suzuki and Zimmermann.

And to be led there with a performance from Zimmermann that cast him as much more the Cy Young candidate he was for the season’s first four months, and less like the one who stumbled through six starts from August through the first week in September with a 6.23 ERA.

Instead, Zimmermann was Mr. Consistency, the guy who made it through his first 21 starts without pitching fewer than six innings. He faltered only once, on a fastball to Corey Hart in the second inning that the Brewers’ first baseman smacked for a solo home run.

“He looked dominant again,” Werth said. “He’s been tough all year. He has been one of the best pitchers in the league, and he showed it again today.”

Zimmermann’s ERA is down to 2.90 after it had spiked to 3.01 in mid-September. He pounded the Brewers with fastballs the first few innings, throwing them almost exclusively, and giving up two extra-base hits in the second. But once he started to mix in his slider and his curveball, both sharp, the Brewers were left relatively helpless against the Wisconsin native. In two starts against them this season Zimmermann has allowed two earned runs in 12⅔ innings and struck out 13 — six Monday.

He made the sun a nonissue for his outfielders, allowing just two of the final 18 batters he faced to send the ball out of the infield, and reveled in his run support. In his past four starts, the Nationals are 4-0, and Zimmermann has a 2.19 ERA.

“He started using all his arsenal and really made it look kind of easy,” Johnson said.

Zimmermann also continued the Nationals pitchers’ strong performance at the plate with two hits — including one to drive in what was then the go-ahead run at the start of the six-run fourth.

“I’m glad I’m having a few good ones here as the season is coming to a close,” he said, noting that, “Everyone back home was probably cheering for the Brewers, so hopefully I put ‘em in their place a little bit.”

It was another day off the calendar, another step closer to the goal they’ve been marching toward for the better part of the past six months. It was a good day for the Nationals, an encouraging day, at the start of what they hope is a memorable week.

“My guys feel it,” Johnson said. “There’s no doubt about it. … We needed to hold our own with [the Brewers] and we did. It’s a good win to go on this road trip, six days against a couple good ballclubs, too. They’re feeling it.”

• Amanda Comak can be reached at acomak@washingtontimes.com.

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