Whether it was because of an uncharacteristic 11 a.m. start time on Monday, or simply because the Washington Nationals were outmatched by the Milwaukee Brewers — a team that entered the week having lost six of its last seven games — Dusty Baker could feel the energy draining from his club.
The Nationals lost consecutive games to the Brewers on Monday and Tuesday, facing the prospect of a sweep before heading to New York to face the rival Mets in a four-game series before the All-Star break.
“I always want to go into the break hot and come out of the break hot,” Baker said before Wednesday’s game. “You just don’t always do it. Our guys are operating at a very low energy level right now. We need the break, but we need to play through the break, not to the break. I don’t want to hear your tired, because everybody is tired. I don’t want to hear it’s hot, because it is hot. This is where the strong wills and strong minds take over. You play with your mind right now.”
As strong-willed as Baker wanted his players to be, he did his best to help the cause. He let the team report later than usual for a 4:05 p.m. start time and held batting practice in the cage, not on the field, as the temperature climbed into the 90s. He gave shortstop Danny Espinosa and catcher Wilson Ramos routine days off, and made a more calculated tweak when he flipped second baseman Daniel Murphy to the No. 3 spot and batted right fielder Bryce Harper cleanup.
The Nationals responded with a 7-4 victory against the Brewers at Nationals Park, boosted by seven innings from Tanner Roark and home runs from Harper and Ryan Zimmerman.
Harper hit a three-run shot to left field in the top of the first to put the Nationals ahead. It was his first at-bat from the four spot since last July 15. The Nationals’ right fielder said he was indifferent to the switch, something Baker said will last for now.
“I thought Murph was swinging better,” Baker said. “Right now, he wasn’t hot today, but he’s been one of the hottest hitters around. I had that feeling last night, and I’ve been having it for a while. I’m hoping that ignites us. I don’t know how long that’s going to be, but we’ll take it today.”
The Brewers strung together five hits and four runs in the top of the third inning to tie the score, but Roark bounced back and allowed just two hits over the next four innings.
“Got a little lackadaisical with some of the pitches and not executing like I should have done,” Roark said. “After that inning, you have a 4-0 lead, I got to at least minimize the runs and not let them tie it back up after we get four runs. That’s a bad job on my part but you learn from it and you get better.”
Stephen Drew, who filled in at shortstop for Espinosa, put Washington ahead in the bottom half of the inning with a ground-rule double that scored Zimmerman.
Zimmerman connected for a two-run home run in the bottom of the fifth, giving the Nationals a more comfortable 7-4 lead and the boost they needed before they head to New York to face the Mets, who are four games behind first-place Washington.
“Honestly, we try and win every game whether it’s the game right before the break or the last game of the year,” Zimmerman said. “Some teams maybe fall into that trap, but I think [Baker has[ done a good job of staying on top of it. I think this group of guys has been around for a while, understand what today was and obviously what this series coming up is.”
• Anthony Gulizia can be reached at email@example.com.
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