All Nationals need to do to get back in NL East race is put together a winning streak

The Nationals are battling to stay in the National League East race. Their All-Star pitcher, Jordan Zimmermann, was done after two innings Sunday. They continue to struggle hitting with runners in scoring position and will try to rebound after getting swept at home by the Dodgers.

But even though four months of the season are nearly complete, there’s still time. And, they can learn from the Dodgers and Rays about what a winning streak can do to change a season.

The Dodgers and Rays were last-place teams on June 22. Since then, they have become relevant. The Dodgers were 9 ½ games out on that day and manager Don Mattingly was on the verge of getting fired. The Rays were tied with the Blue Jays for fourth place in the American League East.

It is too easy to say the Dodgers’ rebound is because of Yasiel Puig, who came up June 3. Puig’s energy and bat helped, but Hanley Ramirez’s return from the disabled list and the strong bat of Andre Ethier were keys. The rotation has done well and the bullpen has taken a step up. And, as the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline approaches, general manager Ned Colletti says the bullpen is the priority as far as an upgrade via trade.

The Rays started 14-18, but have had the best record in baseball since May 8. David Price’s return from the disabled list and Jeremy Hellickson finding his groove have stabilized the rotation. The Rays have to contend with a lot of road games from here on out and have to find ways to keep from overworking their eighth-inning reliever, Joel Peralta. Like the Dodgers, they will look for bullpen help in the trade market.

Now on to other things:

* The Nats’ inability to hit with runners in scoring position and win on the road is well-documented. But the Braves are having similar issues: In Sunday’s 3-1 loss to the White Sox, the Braves left the bases loaded twice in the first three innings, and then Reed Johnson was robbed of a game-tying home run in the eighth. As far as road games, the Braves have lost 20 of 33 away from home.

* The Cardinals start the week with an amazing stat: They were hitting .338 with runners in scoring position and .327 with runners in scoring position and two outs. How good is that? Consider that the Tigers are second to the Cardinals in the first category at .288 and Cleveland is second in other at .277.

* Outfielder Nate McLouth is an important piece in the Orioles offense, but in a way, he’s helping the Pirates in the NL Central. In 2009, the Pirates traded McLouth to Atlanta in a deal that included two pitchers, Jeff Locke, an All-Star who beat the Reds on Sunday, and Charlie Morton, a sinkerballer who has a 3.19 ERA in six starts this season.

* Brewers manager Doug Melvin on the accuracy of trade rumors: “I read them. They are enjoyable. But when I want to find out if a particular player is available, I pick up the phone and call the general manager.’‘

* Mets pitcher Matt Harvey, who goes against the Nationals this weekend, is the first pitcher in team history to have at least 10 strikeouts and no walks in four games during a single season.

* What’s going on with the traditional dislike in the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry? Over the weekend, Red Sox fans in Fenway Park gave Mariano Rivera, the Yankees closer and All-Star MVP, a standing ovation. Then, the same thing happened at a Boston steakhouse. The Red Sox have a chance to bury the Yankees and make up for years of frustration. So what do they do? They cheer Rivera, who will be back for two more series in Boston before the season ends. By the way, if the Yankees don’t make the postseason, the final game of Rivera’s career will be in Houston’s Minute Maid Park, a ballpark where he’s never appeared.

* The Twins will host next year’s All-Star Game, the third for the franchise after 1965 at Metropolitan Stadium and 1985 at the Metrodome. The Twins say they might add a court where fans can taste ballpark food from around the majors. By the way, the ‘65 game was loaded with Hall of Famers: Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale, Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Juan Marichal and Harmon Killebrew.