Nationals’ NL East dominance a good sign for pennant run

The Nationals have now won every series they have played against National League East opponents, currently 10-3 versus Atlanta (2-0), Philadelphia (4-2), Miami (2-0) and the N.Y. Mets (2-1).

This is a good time to be playing well because the schedule is all within the division for two weeks. The Nationals are in the middle of 15 straight games against NL East combatants. After tonight’s finale at Atlanta, they go to Miami for three games beginning Monday afternoon. Next week, the Nationals play host to the Braves and Mets at Nationals Park.

The offense has started to get on a roll, outscoring opponents 32-18 since last Sunday against the Orioles, having plated seven or more runs in three of those six games. Before May 14, the Nationals had scored at least seven runs in a game four times. In a span of just 12 games since May 14, the Nationals have tallied seven or more runs in five games.

It is a trend that is a good sign for the Nationals and gives the pitching staff a little bit of breathing room, compared to those 3-2, 2-1 and 1-0 games they had to hang on to early in the season.

The first two games of the Atlanta series, the Nationals have outscored the Braves 15-8. In Saturday’s 8-4 victory, Danny Espinosa smacked a three-run shot, Bryce Harper hit his third homer of the season and Rick Ankiel had an RBI triple for the second consecutive game.

Manager Davey Johnson has gone with a rotation of Espinosa and Steve Lombardozzi at leadoff. Espinosa went 2-for-5 and he has hit .288 (17-for-59) in his last 16 starts. Lombardozzi has been consistent from the get-go, batting .310 with a .375 OBP.

Ian_Desmond-sidebar.jpgShortstop Ian Desmond has settled into the fifth spot in the order. That has taken advantage of Desmond’s power numbers to begin the season and helped protect Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche. Desmond has eight homers and 23 RBIs so far, with a slugging percentage of .475.

Harper is batting .278, LaRoche is at .288, and Zimmerman is holding steady at .256 and climbing.

Johnson has done a good job of fighting through injuries to starters Michael Morse, Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos to keep the lineup serviceable, and now the Nats are starting to get into a little groove and feeling good about where they are in the batting order.

Harper and Desmond have said it before, when guys around them are hitting, they just have to worry about their responsibility and don’t have to feel like they need to cover for someone else. The results are longer at-bats that tax the pitcher and extend the inning.

But back to the NL East, where the Nationals’ 10-4 record is even more impressive because every team in the division is above .500. Alongside the AL East, it is the best division in baseball. The Phillies, in last place, are 25-23, four games back, and they have won four straight. Entering Sunday, every team in the division has won at least two straight except for the Braves, who have lost six in a row.

And that other statistic about how the Nationals have not been able to sweep a three-game or four-game series this season? They have that opportunity again tonight. But you have to win the first two games of every series to be in a position to sweep anyway, and if the Nationals can keep doing that, they will be just fine.

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