BALTIMORE -- Even throughout their slow start to the season where they were hammered by injuries, the Nationals insisted they would be fine. Their talent was too good not to eventually turn things around. And sooner or later, they believed their injury replacements would settle in and help carry them
BALTIMORE -- Even throughout their slow start to the season where they were hammered by injuries, the Nationals insisted they would be fine. Their talent was too good not to eventually turn things around. And sooner or later, they believed their injury replacements would settle in and help carry them forward, that it was only a matter of time before they rattled off a winning streak.
That time is now.
Max Scherzer struck out 12 batters, dominating the Orioles over eight scoreless innings to pick up his 150th career win and his Major League-leading ninth victory of the season as the Nationals held on to take their sixth game in a row, 2-0, on Wednesday night at Camden Yards. The three-time Cy Young Award winner is now halfway to 300 wins as he continues to be one of the top pitchers in the game in his 11th big league season.
Despite losing four of their projected starting position players to the disabled list -- Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy, Adam Eaton and Matt Wieters -- as well as their top reserve in Howie Kendrick, the Nationals overtook the Braves for first place in the National League East. Washington now finds itself sitting atop the division for the first time since April 3, a half-game up on Atlanta.
"Guys are getting opportunities and they are stepping up and taking advantage of it," said Scherzer. "Sometimes when you have injuries you find out new guys. Guys take the opportunity to run with it. We are seeing that with a bunch of different guys."
Washington prevailed on the backs of its two biggest stars, getting an early lift from a solo home run by Bryce Harper and another dominant outing from Scherzer, as well as a run-scoring single from Juan Soto, the Nationals' most exciting callup this season.
Scherzer yielded just two hits during his latest gem Wednesday night and generated 29 swinging strikes. Only the Mariners' James Paxton (31 on May 2) has a higher single-game total in all of baseball this season. Scherzer attributed his success to a mechanical tweak where he lowered the position of his hands, which allowed him to have one of his best fastballs of the year.
"That's something that, the past couple of starts, I hadn't felt great about, being able to execute fastballs where I wanted to," Scherzer said. "That was kind of a point of emphasis the last couple of days, so that I had rhythm and the ability to work both sides of the plate."
Harper connected with his NL-leading 18th home run of the season (tied for the MLB lead) in the third inning against right-hander David Hess to grab an early lead and Soto added an insurance run in the seventh inning on a pitch way off the outside part of the plate.
It all added up to the Nationals completing their first three-game sweep of their area rivals since June 2007 and improved them to a season-high 10 games over .500 in advance of their four-game set in Atlanta this weekend.
"It's all about watching these guys grow as a team," Nats manager Dave Martinez said. "They're playing together now, as a team, as a unit. And it's fun to watch. They're pulling for each other. They're picking each other up. I've asked these guys to do some things that they aren't very comfortable doing and they've done really well. I'm just looking forward to continuing to do what we do and go out there and play good baseball."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
For the second consecutive game, Nats closer Sean Doolittle began the ninth inning by allowing back-to-back singles to start an Orioles rally. But with no outs and the go-ahead run at the plate in Manny Machado, Craig Gentry got picked off second base for the first out of the inning, paving the way for Doolittle to retire the next two batters and escape the jam.
"Very excited to have a guy like that in the back end of our bullpen," Harper said of Doolittle. "He gets into a jam and it doesn't really matter. He just pitches his way out and closes ballgames."
The Nationals notched their 10th consecutive road victory on Wednesday, a new club record. At 20-8, Washington owns the best road record in the Majors.
HE SAID IT
"I don't even know if he knows he's in the big leagues. This kid is just coming up and just showing he has an unbelievable eye, knows what he wants to do at the plate and just can get the barrel to the ball. Sometimes it doesn't matter how old or how young you are -- if you have that ability, it doesn't matter what's being thrown at you. The fact that he's able to show such a big league approach at this young of an age in the Major Leagues is so impressive." -- Scherzer, on watching the 19-year old Soto
The Nationals travel to Atlanta to begin a four-game set with the Braves on Thursday night at SunTrust Park in a matchup between two teams battling for first place in the National League East. Harper is starting to heat up again, with a home run in each of his past two games, and three of the past four contests. Tanner Roark, who has notched five straight quality starts, will take the ball for Washington against left-hander Sean Newcomb. First pitch is at 7:35 p.m. ET.
Jamal Collier has covered the Nationals for MLB.com since 2016. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.