WASHINGTON -- Right-hander Stephen Strasburg finally received run support as the Nationals defeated the Padres, 11-7, at Nationals Park on Sunday afternoon, sweeping the three-game series and going 5-2 during the seven-game homestand.
The Nationals have won four straight games and improved their record 46-42, and they are now four games behind the Braves in the National League East race after Atlanta's loss in Philadelphia.
The three-game sweep puts the Nats as close as they have been to first in the division since May 20, when they were 3 1/2 games behind the Braves.
"We had a good homestand. A lot of good things happened," manager Davey Johnson said. "The offense is really looking good. They are getting quality at-bats all throughout the lineup. That's the big thing. I don't worry so much about where we are at. I just feel good going into the second half. We have a couple of division foes [Phillies and Marlins] coming up. They are both playing well. We should be ready for them."
In the last nine games that Strasburg started prior to Sunday, the Nationals scored two or fewer runs in seven of them. Strasburg was 3-2 with a 1.29 ERA in those starts. But Sunday was a different story. The score was tied at 1 when Washington scored six runs in the third inning against left-hander Robbie Erlin.
Ryan Zimmerman highlighted the scoring by hitting a first-pitch grand slam to give Washington a 5-1 lead. It was Zimmerman's 10th home run of the season. Johnson now feels that Zimmermann is more aggressive at the plate. He is not taking a lot of pitches like he did in the past.
"He has been more aggressive. He has been stinging the ball, hitting the ball harder," Johnson said. "He got his hits during the first half of the season, but he wasn't hitting the ball the way he was capable of hitting it.
"It means, earlier in the count, getting the pitch and driving it. In the past, sometimes, I think he would look for the perfect pitch to hit … and then get in the pitcher's count and not hit the ball as hard as he is capable of. He is just opening that up a little more. It's a great sign now. Pretty much everybody in the lineup is getting more aggressive."
Zimmerman admits he likes to take pitches when he is in the batter's box.
"I've been the same way my whole career. I take a lot of first-pitch strikes," Zimmerman said. "We talk about being a little more aggressive. To a certain extent, I think [Johnson] is right. Getting behind, 0-1, is not the best all the time. But I'm still going to stick with the plan that has kind of got me where I am now. Obviously, talking back and forth, that's what baseball is all about -- it's making adjustments and learning. I think all of us have gotten a little more aggressive. If that pitch is there, go ahead and hit it. If not, consider another pitch. It's something I guess that has evolved."
Two batters after Zimmerman's slam, Anthony Rendon hit a 1-2 pitch for a two-run homer over the left-field wall. It was his third home run of the season.
In the fifth inning, the Nationals batted around for the second time in three innings against Erlin and reliever Tyson Ross by scoring four runs.
No doubt, Strasburg was happy to have the runs in his favor.
"It was a good series for us -- obviously getting the sweep and gaining some ground," Strasburg said. "You keep swinging like that, I think we are going in the right direction. We still have a lot of baseball ahead of us. We play hard, trying to get better, every single day."
As for Strasburg, he lasted six innings, allowed four runs on seven hits, struck out nine batters and walked two. Alexi Amarista highlighted the scoring for San Diego with a two-run homer.
"He's got great stuff, but I thought when we saw him at our place, his fastball command was better earlier in the year. He battled through some tough innings [Sunday]," Padres catcher Nick Hundley said.
The Padres made it a close game by scoring three runs off right-hander Craig Stammen. In the eighth inning, Carlos Quentin made it an 11-7 game when he blooped an RBI single to left field.
But Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard blanked the Padres the rest of the way.
"We've played below our potential. Now we are coming around. It's a good feeling," Johnson said.
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.