Ryan Zimmerman continues to be backbone of Nationals' attack

WASHINGTON -- Back or no back, Ryan Zimmerman is back.

On a muggy Tuesday evening in the nation's capital, Zimmerman, who missed each of the past three games and four of the past five since tweaking his back in Los Angeles last week, returned to the Washington Nationals' lineup with a vengeance, homering twice and going 3-for-4 in leading Washington to a 10-5 win over the visiting Atlanta Braves.

In the bottom of the first, Zimmerman launched a solo shot to left center off Braves starter R.A. Dickey that was measured at 425 feet. He followed that in the sixth with a decisive two-run blast off Dickey that gave Washington the lead for good and landed in almost the exact same spot as his first homer, only deeper. That one traveled 439 feet, his second-longest homer of the year, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Just for good measure, Zimmerman added a single in the seventh for this 10th three-hit game of the season, the most in the majors and seven more than he had all of last season. More important, his big night at the dish helped put an end to what has been an uncharacteristically brutal few days for Dusty Baker's club.

Entering Tuesday night, the first-place Nats had lost four consecutive games, all on their home turf, to whittle their NL East lead over the New York Mets by three full games. Another loss to the Braves would've resulted in the Nats losing five straight on the same homestand for the first time since the 2013 season. But thanks to Zimmerman and the high-powered offense, not to mention a beleaguered bullpen that tossed 3⅓ scoreless innings, the skid stopped.

"I wish we wouldn't go through stretches like that," Zimmerman said after the game, "but every team's going to go through them. That's why we play as many games as we do. By the end of the year, it kind of filters out the good teams and the bad teams. The good teams are the ones that can recover and reel off four or five after that, or go on a good 15- or 20-game streak."

Of course, it helps to have a middle of the lineup that's absolutely stacked.

No. 3 hitter Bryce Harper, who drove in two runs Tuesday and looks a whole lot like his 2015 self, has been a staple in the MVP conversation since the beginning of the season. Five-hole hitter Daniel Murphy, who finished second in the MVP voting last year, collected three hits against the Braves and is on pace to pretty much duplicate his offensive numbers from 2016. Still, as good as those two lefties have been, it's the righty who hits in between them that stands out.

"I've got the best seat in the house," said Murphy, who's typically on deck when Zimmerman's in the batter's box. "He doesn't give away a single pitch. It seems like the offense goes through him and Bryce, and it's been fun to watch."

After his huge night against Atlanta, Zimmerman is now batting .372, best in the bigs. His 1.140 OPS is best in the National League, nearly 100 points higher than the next closest guy, Paul Goldschmidt. The two homers give him 19 on the season, also tops in the NL and four more than he hit all of last year. They also give him 234 career home runs, moving him into a first-place tie with Vlad Guerrero atop the Nats/Expos franchise leaderboard.

"I guess I've played for a long time now if I've been able to do something like that," said Zimmerman, a former first-rounder out of Virginia who was Washington's inaugural draft pick back in 2005. "Anytime you do anything like that, franchise records or guys who played here and were incredible players like Vlad was, it's fun to do that kind of stuff. You think about it and enjoy it tonight, then tomorrow you've got to move on. But it's cool."

"That tells you he's had an outstanding career and an outstanding year," Baker said. "It's good to have Zim back."