WASHINGTON (AP) The Washington Nationals returned to form and generated some momentum for their showdown with the New York Mets.
Bryce Harper hit the first of Washington's three home runs, and the Nationals overpowered the Milwaukee Brewers 7-4 Wednesday to avert a three-game sweep.
Jose Lobaton and Ryan Zimmerman also connected for the NL East-leading Nationals, who open a four-game series Thursday night at second-place New York before heading into the All-Star break.
''It's critical because they're chasing us and we're trying to put some distance on them,'' Washington manager Dusty Baker said. ''It's very important.''
After watching the Nationals score a combined two runs in two games against the Brewers, Baker said before the finale, ''We're operating at a low energy level right now.''
Harper remedied that with a three-run shot in the first inning, the Nationals' first long ball in three games. Lobaton made it 4-0 in the second and Zimmerman chased Brewers starter Matt Garza (1-2) with a two-run drive in the fifth for a 7-4 lead.
Tanner Roark (8-5) allowed four runs and seven hits in seven innings for the Nationals. The right-hander also beat the Brewers on June 26 to help Washington dodge a three-game sweep.
''He pounded the strike zone,'' Harper said. ''When he goes out there, it's usually a quick game and a lot of fun.''
Jonathan Papelbon worked the ninth for his 17th save in 19 chances.
Afterward, the Nationals turned their attention toward their trip to New York, knowing a sweep either way would have a huge impact on the standings.
''How many games are we up on them? Four?'' Harper said. ''We could either be tied or up eight. It's plain and simple.''
Scooter Gennett had two RBIs and stole home for the Brewers. Despite the loss, Milwaukee finished 4-2 against the Nationals to win the season series for the first since 2010.
''Builds our confidence knowing you can play with the best,'' Gennett said.
Garza gave up seven runs, eight hits and two walks in 4 1/3 innings. He is 1-5 with a 7.69 ERA in 10 starts against Washington.
''Behind in a lot of counts today and I had to pitch from behind and that's what happens,'' Garza said. ''You just put it in the back of your mind and get through it and get to the next one.''
The right-hander ran into difficulty almost immediately, giving up singles to Ben Revere and Jayson Werth before Harper hit his 18th home run, an opposite-field poke to left.
After retiring the first six batters, Roark gave up five singles in the third. Milwaukee drew even when Gennett scored on the front end of a double steal.
Stephen Drew hit a two-out RBI double in the bottom half for a 5-4 lead.
MAKE SOME NOISE
Baker is asking the home fans to crank up the volume in the second half of the season. ''Some of the guys on the team wish our fans were more boisterous and crazy, like we see at different stadiums on the road,'' he said. Taking into account the transient nature of Washington, Baker added, ''We realize a lot of fans are new. We're trying to win everybody over to us. We need their energy, big time.''
According to Major League Baseball, the 88-vote margin by which Chicago Cubs second baseman Ben Zobrist defeated Washington's Daniel Murphy to start in the All-Star Game (3,013,407 to 3,013,319) was the closest margin since 1982, when Manny Trillo defeated Steve Sax for NL 2B by 1,625 votes.
WIN AND OUT
Brewers: RHP Zach Davies, who started and won Tuesday's game, was optioned to Triple-A Colorado Springs. 1B Andy Wilkins was recalled from the same minor league club.
Nationals: RHP Joe Ross (right shoulder inflammation) has been inactive since being placed on the DL on Sunday. ''He's shut down right now. We're trying to get the inflammation out of there,'' Baker said.
Brewers: After taking Thursday off, the Brewers welcome St. Louis for a three-game series leading up to the All-Star break.
Nationals: The Nationals send rookie Lucas Giolito to the mound Thursday night. He pitched four scoreless innings in his debut.