Having scored 289 runs on the season, the Nationals offense ranks eighth in the National League in runs scored. But over their last 20 games, the Nationals offense has kicked it into a different gear. For those games, they've scored 93 runs, or 4.65 runs a game, and have produced a 12-8 record. This scoring outburst also happens to include the series against the Cardinals in which they managed to score a grand total of three runs.
The main complaint about the Nationals lately has been their consistency, but baseball is an inconsistent sport. The question of whether the Nats have turned the corner cannot be answered until the entire road has been constructed. The baseball season is a winding thing full of ups and downs and twists and turns. Every team has winning streaks and losing streaks, just as every player has hot streaks and slumps, and the good ones are the ones that end up with longer winning streaks than losing streaks.
It isn't hard to figure out what spurred this good stretch for the Nationals. Adam LaRoche returned to the lineup 21 games ago and Ryan Zimmerman 15 games ago. Replacing Tyler Moore and his .666 OPS with Adam LaRoche and his .905 OPS is going to have an impact, just as replacing the .538 Nate McLouth with a .763 Ryan Zimmerman is. Over the 14 games, the Nationals played without LaRoche and Zimmerman in the lineup, they went 5-9 and scored a measly 3.4 runs a game. By adding two tougher outs to the lineup, the Nationals increased their run-scoring output by over one run a game.
As impressive as the Nats' recent stretch has been, it is important that they keep it going. The Nationals have struggled against the Braves in 2014 and, in order to win the division, they are going to have to take care of them themselves at some point. With a 1 1/2-game lead and a four-game series against the Braves, the Nationals have a great opportunity to do some damage to Atlanta's hopes in the division. The most likely outcome for this series is a split, but if the Nationals can play like they did against the Giants, then anything is possible and the Nats could be looking at a 3 1/2- or even a 5 1/2-game division lead coming out of this series.
Beyond the impressive offensive play over the last 20 games, the pitching has kicked it into gear, having allowed an average of three runs a game. If you're keeping score at home, the Nationals in their last 20 games have scored 93 runs and allowed 59, and again this includes a couple of bad series against the Marlins and Cardinals in which the Nationals were outscored 21-10. Aside from those two series, the Nationals have won every other series and outscored opponents in those games by a margin of 83-38. The argument could be made that this is the best baseball the Nationals have played over the last three seasons.
When a team is both suffocating an opponent with pitching and bludgeoning them with the bats, victory is all but assured. The Nationals have played that brand of baseball over their last 20 games and need to keep it going as they welcome Atlanta into Nationals Park. This is the most important match-up the Nationals have had all season and they cannot let the opportunity to bury the Braves pass them by as they did earlier in the season.
Ian Desmond and Denard Span have been a key to the Nats' recent offensive outburst. The players between them in the lineup (Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth, LaRoche and Zimmerman) are going to get theirs and with Desmond having a .820 OPS in June and Span a.737 mark, the current lineup is seven deep with Danny Espinosa contributing a .708 OPS for the month. This Nationals lineup has not been an easy one to navigate of late and it has led them to a 12-8 record over their last 20 games, scoring 4.65 runs a game. If the Nats can play Atlanta as they have everyone else, then this could be the weekend where the Nats really put their mark on the division and the 2014 season.
David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals at Citizens of Natstown. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHuzzard. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our regular roster of writers.