It’s only five games. That qualifier needs to be made. Five days from now, the storyline could be completely reversed.
But over these last five games — four of them wins, including Wednesday night’s 8-4 victory over the Phillies — the Nationals haven’t merely looked like a team having a nice week. After two months trying desperately to keep their heads above water, they now look like a team poised to go on a prolonged hot streak. A team that is getting contributions from just about everybody who steps on the field. A team that is playing like the contender everyone thought it would be all along.
“I hope so,” center fielder Denard Span said. “It’s been a lot of fun for us, pitching the ball good and swinging the bat well. It’s been a lot of fun lately. Hopefully we keep it going.”
There are legitimate reasons to believe they can…
1. They’re finally getting healthy.
After losing five of their eight starting position players on Opening Day to various injuries over the season’s first two months, the Nationals have seen Span, Wilson Ramos, Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman return from the DL. Only Bryce Harper remains sidelined, and he is due back in approximately four weeks.
“We talked about it last night, about having Ryan back in there, how that kind of stacks the lineup up,” manager Matt Williams said. “That’s good.”
2. They’re getting contributions up and down the lineup.
During their roughest stretches last month, the Nationals simply couldn’t produce the one or two key hits a night they needed to win close ballgames. It felt like they only had one or two guys capable of delivering those hits. Now, the combination of better health and several previously struggling hitters turning red-hot makes this a highly potent lineup, one that has scored 34 runs over its last five games. And that includes a shutout loss to Yu Darvish on Sunday.
“There’s nothing more frustrating than when it was just one guy swinging the bat well, and you can’t get anything going,” said Span, who in the last 2 1/2 weeks has raised his batting average from .236 to .284. “But it seems like, collectively as a team offensively, we’ve been finding ways to score a lot of runs. … I’ve probably said this a million times in my career, but hitting is contagious. That’s really the answer right there. When one or two guys swing the bat, it almost seems like the third guy who comes up says, ‘You know what? I’m going to look for that same pitch, or I’m going to look for a good pitch and try to put a good swing on the ball.’”
3. They’re getting dominant starting pitching
For two months, the Nationals’ star-studded rotation pitched well enough to give their teammates a chance to win, but not well enough to overcome a lack of run support. Well, they’ve stepped it up a notch in the last week. During this five-game stretch, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Tanner Roark have surrendered a combined five earned runs.
“I mean, that’s the goal: Just give the team an opportunity to win the ballgame every time,” Strasburg said. “I know over the course of the year, you’re going to have some stinkers in there. You just want to do everything within your power to keep it close.”
Games during this run haven’t been particularly close. The Nationals’ last four wins have come by a margin of 7, 8, 7 and 4 runs. For the season, they’ve now outscored opponents by 25 runs, the best run differential in the NL East and the second-best mark in the NL, behind only the Giants (+55).
For all those reasons, the Nationals appear to be a ballclub not simply on a nice, brief run. They appear to be a ballclub that has finally found its stride, one that isn’t about to let up.
Just don’t expect them to actually say it.
“If I’ve learned anything in my however-many years in this game, it’s that you can’t assume and you can’t take anything for granted,” Williams said. “So we have to work hard every day to continue to play well and continue to do the things we want to do. Over the last five days, it’s been good, so we want to continue that trend. Have to keep working hard.”