Bryce Harper's return from the disabled list after more than a month put him in the same lineup with Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman for the first time since April 17. The impact was immediate, as Harper homered in his first at-bat, and his teammates followed his lead in a 10-5 victory over the Brewers at Nationals Park.
"Well, with everybody healthy, look at our lineup: It's balanced, it's right-left-right all the way down," said Werth, who moved back to the No. 2 hole and drove in five runs. "You put [Anthony] Rendon down in the seventh hole, and it's a tough, balanced lineup. I mean, it really is. We'll see, but I like our lineup like that."
Harper finished 1-for-4 with a walk, Jordan Zimmermann picked up his National League-leading 12th win while notching three hits and Washington won for the eighth time in 12 games. Now 42-40, the Nationals need a win on Tuesday to reach three games over .500 for the first time since May 18.
Washington, which moved within six games of idle Atlanta in the NL East, is now 26-18 with Harper in the lineup and 16-22 without him.
"We've played great ball all year. I don't know why everybody keeps saying we haven't," Harper said. "I think five, six games out at the [All-Star break], that's pretty good. I think the San Francisco Giants were 7 1/2 out, and they won the World Series [last year]. So I think we're a pretty good team, and it's going to be us at the end, hopefully."
The Nationals won on Monday with something close to their ideal lineup, although catcher Wilson Ramos is still on a Minor League rehab assignment for his strained hamstring. Coming off a 13-run barrage against the Mets on Sunday, everything clicked.
Denard Span reached base safely three times and scored three times out of the leadoff spot. Werth produced five RBIs for the first time since July 7, 2009, with the Phillies. Everyone else in the lineup had at least one hit, with the exception of catcher Kurt Suzuki. That includes Zimmermann, who notched the first three-hit game of his career while pitching six solid innings.
"Today definitely was fun," Span said. "Having, obviously, Bryce back and getting [Werth] in the two-hole and just having everybody but Ramos. It seemed like our lineup is a lot deeper with Bryce back, and it makes it tougher for the opposing pitchers."
That certainly was the case for Brewers right-hander Yovani Gallardo (6-8), whose troubles began with Harper in the first inning.
Harper, now recovered from bursitis in his left knee, walked up to an ovation from the crowd, and the volume only intensified when he drove a high 1-0 fastball into the bullpen in left-center field. Left fielder Sean Halton made a leaping attempt just to the left of the 377-foot sign but couldn't quite reach Harper's 13th home run, his first since May 22.
"I felt like I was back on Opening Day. I felt really good," Harper said. "Gallardo's a great pitcher, and I was trying to get something I could drive, and I got a pitch I could handle a little bit and put it where I wanted to."
Just like he did on Opening Day, when he homered in his first two at-bats against the Marlins, Harper demonstrated his penchant for producing dramatic moments. Those in attendance didn't stop their cheers until Harper re-emerged up the dugout steps and waved his hand for a quick curtain call.
His bat was quiet for the rest of the night, but it didn't matter
Washington scored five runs in the third inning against Gallardo to grab a six-run lead. Zimmermann got things started with a double, and two batters later, Werth drove in two with a double into the gap in left-center. After Harper struck out, Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche and Ian Desmond added consecutive RBI hits.
"I don't know what's going on with him, but the results aren't there, because he makes really good pitches, and then he misses with a couple," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said of Gallardo. "And when he misses, they're not missing the ball."
Zimmermann singled to start the fourth, Span doubled, and Werth drove both home with a single. That knocked out Gallardo, who was charged with eight runs on nine hits in three-plus innings.
"Hitting definitely is contagious. I think it's an epidemic," Span said. "It kind of just spreads, and hopefully, we can keep it going. It's a lot more fun when we're batting around and having good at-bats and getting the starting pitcher out of the game like that."
From the mound, Zimmermann sailed easily through four innings, but the effects of his offensive exploits might have taken their toll. He gave up two runs on three singles in the fifth, then got two outs in the sixth before Rickie Weeks and Juan Francisco crushed long back-to-back home runs.
"I thought I did pretty well in the beginning innings, then I got a few hits and had to run around the bases a little bit, and it took a little bit out of me," Zimmermann said. "But I thought I pitched pretty well. I made some pitches that they got some hits off of, and I left a few up. The one that Francisco hit, I thought that was a good pitch. The one that Weeks hit, that was a backup slider. I made some good pitches and I missed on a few, but I'll take it. We got the win, and that's the main thing."
Zimmermann saw his ERA rise, to 2.46, after giving up four runs on nine hits in six innings. He struck out five and walked none.
"You get eight runs like that, and you're just pitching to the score," he said. "I'm throwing fastballs and trying to get quick outs and trying not to fall behind anyone."
Craig Stammen surrendered an RBI double to Aramis Ramirez in the seventh, letting the Brewers pull within three runs. But Drew Storen came in to record the frame's final out, and Milwaukee was shut down the rest of the way.
The Nationals added a pair of insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth.
It seems like the start of something new for the Nationals, who now have scored double-digit runs in two straight games after doing so only one other time this season, on April 15. But can it continue?
"Oh, I don't know. We'll see," Werth said. "One minute we can't score a run, the next minute we're scoring too many runs. It was a good win, a good way to start out the series. We'll come back out and play tomorrow."