Nationals stay red-hot, sweep Marlins

Nationals stay red-hot, sweep Marlins
August 30, 2013, 12:00 am
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It's easy to over-analyze everything that happens in baseball, with so many nuances and so much downtime fostering that tendency, but the Nationals right now are trying their darndest to avoid that temptation.

They know they've been playing much better ball for three weeks, they know they've been making up ground in the standings and they know what still must be done to complete the arduous task of salvaging a season that not long ago was firmly on the fritz.

But that's as much as they want to know at the moment. After Thursday night's 9-0 thrashing of the Marlins — the Nationals' 14th win in 19 games — don't ask them to explain why they're playing so well, lest they start thinking about it too much and then fall right back into the trap that perhaps spoiled the first four months of this season.

"I still don't really want to talk about the whole thing," right fielder Jayson Werth said. "Silence is golden. We've got a long way to go. We're playing some good baseball. We just need to keep going."

With each passing day, the Nationals are getting closer to making this thing really interesting. Having won eight of their last nine, they now trail the Reds by 6 1/2 games for the final Wild Card berth in the NL, with 29 games to play.

They still face long odds, but the odds are getting better. Given a miniscule 0.7 percent chance of making the playoffs only three weeks ago when they were six games under .500, the Nationals now have a 12.3 percent chance of pulling it off, according to FanGraphs' projection formula.

"Strange things happen in this game," manager Davey Johnson said.

It might take something strange for the Nationals to storm all the way back and keep playing into October, but the path they've taken to get back to this point actually hasn't been all that unusual. This resurgence can be boiled down to one simple fact: The Nationals are beating up on bad teams.

Since the All-Star break, they're 2-13 against teams that currently hold playoff positions (the Braves, Dodgers, Pirates and Tigers) but 18-5 against everyone else (the Mets, Brewers, Phillies, Giants, Cubs, Royals and Marlins).

Now the good news: Their next 16 games all come against teams out of the race.

"The schedule ... it is what it is, I guess," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "In the big leagues, any team can beat any team on any night. You can't really look at that and be like, 'Oh, we can two out of three there.' That's when you get in trouble. As cliché as it sounds, we come out each day, and whoever we're playing, we try and beat that team that night."

The Nationals had no trouble beating the last-place Marlins the last three nights, especially on Thursday when they cruised to their third-most-lopsided win of the year. Gio Gonzalez wriggled his way out of some early trouble and then dominated after that, tossing seven scoreless innings and departing to a standing ovation from the lively crowd of 27,374.

The crowd really came to life as the Nationals' lineup exploded in the middle innings to take a commanding lead. Werth, Bryce Harper and Ian Desmond all homered. Add Zimmerman to the mix, and the Nats' 2-through-5 hitters went a collective 10-for-14 with two walks, three homers and eight RBI.

"One guy has a good AB or whatever, I think everybody starts having good ABs," said Harper, now hitting .280 with a .901 OPS. "One guy hits, everybody hits."

During this 19-game hot streak, the Nationals are averaging 5.5 runs and batting a collective .300. What's the explanation? Perhaps guys are more relaxed when they step to the plate, not feeling anymore like they have to be the one alone to get this team back on track and instead confident the guy in the on-deck circle can get the job done as well.

"I feel comfortable, and there's something to be said about that, for sure," said Werth, now batting .329 with a .946 OPS. "I think overall this season of expectations and kind of the hangover from last year and all that, really now we're just kind of shaking it off and playing good baseball. That's really all it comes down to."

It may also come down to the simple fact that this lineup has been loaded with talent all along. It just hasn't performed up to its talent until now.

"We're a scary team when we're going good," Harper said. "I think everybody knows that."

Everybody also knows the Nationals haven't come close to accomplishing anything yet. Sure, they're on a roll right now, the kind that was so commonplace last season.

But it won't mean anything if they don't finish the job. And they're going to have to be near-perfect the rest of the way to make that possible.

"There's plenty of time," Werth said. "There's plenty of time to do a crazy thing."