Resilient Nats sit squarely in NL East race

July 13th, 2019

Among the many beauties of baseball are the endless possibilities which exist during a long season. The Washington Nationals have showcased some of those possibilities over the past couple of months. They still might not win the National League East -- or even get a Wild Card berth. But don’t tell them they can’t, or won’t. We talk a lot about all of the injuries the Yankees have overcome on their way to the best record in the American League. The Nationals have done something different, but just as impressive:

They’ve overcome themselves.

The Nats stood 19-31 after a loss on May 23, and their bullpen looked as if it couldn’t get out the guys in the Presidents Race at Nationals Park. At that point, they were not only in fourth place in the NL East -- they had the same number of losses as the Marlins and were 10 games behind the Phillies, old friend Bryce Harper’s new team. There was speculation manager Dave Martinez might be the first skipper dismissed this season; that they might even consider moving Max Scherzer to a contender the way his old teammate with the Tigers, Justin Verlander, got himself moved to the Astros a couple of years ago.

But here is what has happened since then: The Nationals became a contender. From May 24 onward, it’s not the Yankees or the Dodgers who own the best record in baseball -- but the Nationals. Following Friday night’s shutout of the Phillies, they are 29-11 since bottoming out in May. Heading into play on Saturday, they sit six games behind the first-place Braves -- with whom they have a bunch of games coming up, just five games behind in the loss column.

Oh, by the way, they are also two games better in the loss column than old friend Harper’s new club.

“I know we’re so much better than this,” general manager Mike Rizzo told a friend when his team couldn’t hold a lead against anybody in May. “But the bullpen has been awful.”

Of course, when the Nats did fall to 19-31 on May 23, they did it by blowing another lead -- after taking a 4-3 lead against the Mets in the 8th inning at Citi Field. Wander Suero came in behind Stephen Strasburg and proceeded to give up three runs. So the Nationals lost again, in what looked as if it had already turned into a lost season -- one in which Rizzo was fully expected to be a seller and not close to being a buyer at the Trade Deadline on July 31.

Even at the end of June, this is what Rizzo was saying:

“As we’ve done in the past, we’ve been buyers, we’ve been sellers -- we’ve been kind of a mixture of buying and selling at the same time. So this is our time to evaluate.”

What his team really seems to be selling right now is a pennant race in the NL East in August and September. The Nationals were knocked down and laid out after 50 games. Somehow, they got to one knee and began to get up. Now, they are straight-up playing, over the last seven weeks, the best baseball in the sport. After 90 games a year ago, when they still had Harper, their record was 45-45. In the summer of 2019, the Nats' record is three games better -- and trending in the right direction, toward first place in their division instead of last.

The top three guys in their rotation – Scherzer, Strasburg and Patrick Corbin – look as formidable as the top of any rotation in the sport. Slowly, the guys in the bullpen -- after the release of Trevor Rosenthal (who was signed as a free agent last winter, only to post an ERA of 22.74 over 12 games) -- have begun to figure things out ahead of closer Sean Doolittle. Rizzo has added three guys to his bullpen – Javy Guerra, Jonny Venters and 42-year-old Fernando Rodney – released by other teams since the start of this season, and combined them with Suero, Matt Grace and Tanner Rainey.

Of course, this isn’t the Yankees bullpen ... or even close. Rizzo is looking for more relief pitching the way everybody in contention is. But it was telling that when Strasburg left Friday night’s game against the Phillies after six scoreless innings, the Nationals blanked Philadelphia for three more frames -- and got four strikeouts -- behind Suero, Rodney and Doolittle.

The Nationals keep on winning, despite the fact nobody in Martinez’s batting order is having a breakout campaign. But they still have the kid, Juan Soto, as well as Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner. The big two-run hit on Friday night came from Victor Robles, as the Nationals began the traditional second half of the season the same way they ended the first.

"I'm really proud of the way they came out," Martinez said. "They had intensity and they played well."

His team has been playing this way for a while. The Phillies were still in first place back on May 23. Since then, the Nationals have been 11 1/2 games better than them. And just know, nothing gets easier for the Nats, as they continue their climb back. Before the Trade Deadline, they have four games against the Braves next weekend in Atlanta, then finish July with three games at home against the Dodgers, plus three more at Nationals Park against the Braves.

By then, we’ll have a better idea about exactly where the Nationals stand. But look at where they were. Long season. Beautiful.