WASHINGTON -- If there's a reason to believe the Nationals will make a push into the playoffs over the final two months of the season, it's because their stars have made a habit of stepping up in crucial situations during the regular season over the past few years.Bryce Harper and
WASHINGTON -- If there's a reason to believe the Nationals will make a push into the playoffs over the final two months of the season, it's because their stars have made a habit of stepping up in crucial situations during the regular season over the past few years.
Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman, two of the most prominent names in Nationals history, kick-started a fourth-inning rally Tuesday afternoon with back-to-back homers and led the Nats to an 8-3 win over the Braves in Game 1 of a day-night doubleheader at Nationals Park to begin a crucial four-game series that could factor into postseason positioning.
The Nationals have won nine of their past 12 games and are four games over .500 for the first time since June 29.
"We need those guys, plus all the other guys, to keep playing the way they're playing," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. "We've been playing really well. We're swinging the bats a lot better. We're starting to drive in runs -- not only just by hitting home runs, but staying up the middle of the field and getting big hits."
Harper's extended slump and Zimmerman's right oblique strain were two of the main factors in the Nationals underperforming this season. Harper hit .188 in June and the club made him available before the non-waiver Trade Deadline. Zimmerman, who led the Nats in home runs and RBIs last season, was sidelined for more than two months.
Since he won the Home Run Derby, Harper is hitting .370 with four home runs, six doubles, 16 RBIs, 10 walks and three stolen bases, proving the difference one of the best players in baseball can make at his best.
On Tuesday, Harper and Zimmerman combined for five RBIs. Their back-to-back homers in the fourth inning gave the Nationals a 2-1 lead before singles from Trea Turner and Juan Soto also drove in runs.
The Nationals loaded the bases in the sixth inning before Anthony Rendon's sacrifice fly drove in Spencer Kieboom. Then Harper plated Turner with a single and Zimmerman's double knocked in two more to give Washington an 8-2 cushion.
All of the Nationals' runs came after Braves starter Max Fried exited at the end of the second inning with a left groin strain.
"You go through times in the year where everyone gets hits, and then you go through times where it's tough to score runs," Zimmerman said. "I don't think we've done a particularly great job of putting together at-bats like that in the first half, but I think since the All-Star break, we've done a better job."
Jefry Rodriguez, called up from Triple-A Syracuse for a spot start, put the Nats in a position to win with his best career outing. The right-hander, who was 0-1 with a 9.64 ERA in his other three big league starts, allowed one run and three hits over five innings.
The Nationals asked Rodriguez to add a third pitch since he had been relying on his fastball and curveball, and the 25-year-old flashed a changeup Tuesday.
"That's what we work hard to accomplish," Rodriguez said through a translator. "And now that I did, I'm very excited."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Holland doesn't skip beat:Greg Holland, who signed with the Nationals on Tuesday, made his debut in the seventh inning. After issuing a walk to Tyler Flowers, the right-hander struck out the side.
After the game, Martinez asked Holland if he was anxious.
"He kind of gave me that look like he's done it before," Martinez said. "I said, 'Don't kid yourself. Everybody gets nervous.'" More >
Harper's home run featured a 113.3 mph exit velocity, the Nationals' second-hardest-hit homer this season, per Statcast™. Harper hit a homer with an exit velocity of 115.1 mph on May 13.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
During a bizarre sequence in the third inning, Soto hit a ball off the center-field wall for a single before being ruled out for passing Turner on the basepaths.
Center fielder Ender Inciarte bobbled Soto's hit, but the ball ricocheted to Adam Duvall, who snagged it after running over from left field. Turner, believing it was an out, sprinted back to first, with Soto passing Turner as he rounded first base.
"The only thing I could've done was to find the umpire making the call and react to his call, which isn't really possible and/or the right thing to do," Turner said. "I just wanted to keep my eyes on the ball. I saw him tip it to the other guy and catch it, so in my eyes, run back. It's kind of the safe play, I guess.
"It stinks because that could've potentially been a really big play in the game. But it worked out, so move on from it." More >
HE SAID IT
"They've got this sense of energy. They know this is the time. Let's ride it out and see what happens." -- Martinez, on his players' emotion
Max Scherzer will get the call for Game 2 of a day-night doubleheader vs. the Braves at 7:05 p.m. ET. In three starts against Atlanta this season, Scherzer has gone 2-1 with a 1.80 ERA and 24 strikeouts to just three walks in 20 innings. He enters this start riding a three-game winning streak. Sean Newcomb will start for the Braves.
Kyle Melnick is a reporter for MLB.com based in Washington.