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Sweep, hot stretch breathe new life into Nats

With win, Washington ties Philadelphia for second in NL East, top NL Wild Card spot
@JamalCollier
July 4, 2019

WASHINGTON -- Even the most optimistic projections would have struggled to predict such a quick turnaround for these Nationals, transforming from perhaps the most disappointing team in the Majors into a club holding one of the National League’s Wild Card spots in the span of six weeks. On May 23,

WASHINGTON -- Even the most optimistic projections would have struggled to predict such a quick turnaround for these Nationals, transforming from perhaps the most disappointing team in the Majors into a club holding one of the National League’s Wild Card spots in the span of six weeks.

On May 23, they were 12 games under .500 and floundering after being swept at Citi Field. Since then, they have been baseball’s hottest team, boasting the best record in the Majors during that span, which includes their 5-2 victory against the Marlins on Thursday afternoon at Nationals Park.

Box score

The win completed Washington’s second three-game sweep over Miami in a week and improved its winning streak to four games. The club has won eight of its past nine and 13 of its past 16 games. Dating back to May 24, the Nationals own the best record in the Majors, going 26-10 to finish Thursday with a record of 45-41 -- four games above .500 for the first time since Aug. 7, 2018. With this win, the Nats are tied with the Phillies for second place in the NL East and for the top NL Wild Card spot.

“I think we got that feeling now [of], 'How are we going to win this game? We're going to win this game here,’” catcher Kurt Suzuki said. “It's always about winning, and we feel it. You've got to try to keep that feeling as long as you can."

As usual, the backbone of this improbable run begins with stellar starting pitching. Anibal Sanchez labored through the beginning of his start Thursday, but he settled in to deliver another strong outing since coming off the injured list, tallying six innings of two-run ball. He’s been a different pitcher in his seven starts since returning from the IL, with a 2.18 ERA in that span.

Through this turn in the rotation, the Nationals’ starting pitching has been even more dominant. The quartet of Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin, Stephen Strasburg and Sanchez combined to give up just four runs in 28 1/3 innings (1.27 ERA) with 37 strikeouts and five walks in the past four games.

“It’s been unbelievable,” Nats manager Dave Martinez said. “When you can ask your starting rotation to give you seven innings every outing, that’s incredible, and it saves our bullpen, it really does. What they’re doing over the last -- well not just the last six weeks, because they’ve done it all year -- you’re just seeing the benefits now, because the whole team is playing really well.”

This lineup also continues to dominate opposing pitching staffs.

The Nationals have mashed a homer in 18 consecutive games, the longest streak in franchise history, extended by Suzuki’s 10th homer of the season in the second inning. Anthony Rendon collected his 20th home run of the year to tie the game in the fifth -- the fastest, in terms of games played, he has reached 20 homers in his career. He then added a run-scoring single in the sixth, his 60th RBI of the season, to give the Nats the lead. Juan Soto went 0-for-4 on Thursday, but he had been riding a 17-game on-base streak. His on-base percentage was .493 during that span.

Without Sean Doolittle, who was unavailable after tallying 53 pitches in back-to-back game, the Nationals’ bullpen was able to close out the game -- thanks to Javy Guerra, who got Miguel Rojas to line out with the bases loaded in the eighth inning, and 42-year-old Fernando Rodney, who hit 99 mph on the radar gun in the ninth as he recorded his second save of the year.

“Sometimes you have to put something extra on the hitter and let him know,” Rodney said.

Yes, the Nats have taken advantage of a soft spot in the schedule, beating up on the Marlins and Tigers, and they will welcome the last-place Royals to Nationals Park to close out the first half. And yes, the schedule will get more difficult out of the All-Star break, testing the merits of this hot stretch.

But the Nationals are rolling, and with this hot streak, they have climbed completely out of the early-season hole they found themselves in.

“I think we are a good team,” said outfielder Gerardo Parra, who collected a two-run double in the eighth. “Right now, I think we are the best. And we’ll see what happens.”

Jamal Collier has covered the Nationals for MLB.com since 2016. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.