WASHINGTON -- Each time through the past two months that the Nationals have had a "statement win" in which they seem to be clicking on all cylinders and ready to take a step forward and show off their true potential, they have quickly followed with a step back. One of the reasons they haven't been able to build any momentum from these comeback wins, blowout victories or strong pitching performances has been because of a starting pitching staff that entered Wednesday with an MLB-worst 5.37 ERA since the beginning of June.
But to follow up their historic offensive outburst the night before, the Nationals rode a spectacular start from left-hander Tommy Milone, who outdueled a returning Noah Syndergaard, to lead the Nats to a 5-3 victory over the Mets on Wednesday at Nationals Park, completing a two-game sweep. Milone struck out nine in seven innings of one-run ball against New York, the team he compiled an 8.56 ERA for in 11 games last year. Milone's nine strikeouts are his most since he struck out 10 in 2013 while he was with the A's.
The win moves the Nats over .500 again at 54-53 and to within five games of the first-place Phillies, who are off Wednesday.
"I feel like we're playing good baseball," Trea Turner said. "We've played good baseball at times, but then we hit a rough patch. Hopefully we can push through that and keep it going."
Milone, who is filling in for the injured Stephen Strasburg, was making his second start this season for the Nationals, the team that originally drafted him in 2008. And he has looked right at home. In two starts, he has given up four runs in 12 innings with 15 strikeouts and no walks.
"It's been kind of a rollercoaster ride, really," Milone said. "I spent the last couple years trying to get back to my old self and midway through the Triple-A season, I felt like I found it. I'm just trying to roll with it."
It's unclear how much longer Milone will remain in the Nats' rotation, however, considering Strasburg should not need an extended absence for the pinched nerve in his neck. He resumed playing catch on Monday and has not missed much time on the DL.
"I mean, I haven't [thought about it], but obviously that could be something that creeps up in the back of your mind," Milone said. "But right now, just take it a day at a time or a game at a time and try to go out there and help the team win."
Anthony Rendon's two-run homer and Bryce Harper's run-scoring single helped provide the offense against Syndergaard, who retired 12 in a row at one point and gave up three runs in seven innings. Jose Reyes hit a pair of solo home runs, against Milone in the fifth and Ryan Madson in the eighth, but the Nats tacked on a pair of insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth. Kelvin Herrera surrendered a solo home run in the ninth to Wilmer Flores before he closed out the win.
"When we can get seven innings, we've got a pretty good bullpen to hold us down," manager Dave Martinez said. "Tommy today was fabulous. To get seven innings out of him … at one point, I thought if we get five, great. And he looked good. So I said, 'Hey, leave him out.' We got six, I said, 'Let him go out there again and see what happens.'"
Harper is starting to show signs of heating up at the plate. In 11 games following the All-Star break, he is batting .333 (12-for-36) with six extra-base hits and 11 RBIs.
"He's playing the way he's capable of playing," Martinez said.
Harper added: "I think every day you want to go out there and get knocks and help your team win. I've been able to do that lately so it's been a lot better than usual, I guess. Just trying to go out there and have some at-bats that I can get some knocks in, wait for some pitches over the plate, got a couple the last couple of days."
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Herrera followed Flores' homer by allowing a one-out double to Michael Conforto and a walk to Jose Bautista, drawing a mound visit from Nationals pitching coach Derek Lilliquist. But Brandon Nimmo bounced Herrera's next pitch to second baseman Wilmer Difo, who sprinted to second base for the out and fired a strike to first to complete the game-ending double play.
The Nationals welcome the Reds to Nationals Park on Thursday for the beginning of a four-game series. Max Scherzer will take the mound against Cincinnati as he did on Opening Day back in March, when he struck out 10 in six shutout innings in a 2-0 Nats victory. He will face off against right-hander Tyler Mahle; first pitch is at 7:05 p.m. ET.