Marty Niland: Nationals face their own Test of Champions

Just like California Chrome coming off his Preakness victory in mid-May, the Nationals finally seem to be rounding into form.

They have won seven of their past nine games, outscoring opponents 53-16. The bats have been hot, with the fifth-best OPS in the National League at .737 since the start of the month.

The starting rotation has put together two straight solid turns, and is coming off its strongest stretch of the season. Over the past six games, Nats starters have struck out 44 batters and walked just one. Now, after Jordan Zimmermann's stellar complete-game, two-hit shutout of the San Diego Padres on Sunday, the Nationals are tied for first place in the National League East.

The Nats certainly seem to be at the top of their game, as did California Chrome as he headed out of Pimlico with his sixth straight victory in hand. Racing fans know how it turned out for the popular colt, though. He came up short in the Belmont Stakes, extending the Triple Crown drought to 36 years. At 1 1/2 miles, the Belmont is the longest of the Triple Crown races, known as the "Test of Champions." Only the strongest and most durable horses can win.

We'll find out just how good the Nationals are over the next week as they face their own grueling Test of Champions: seven games on the road against the hottest team in baseball, the San Francisco Giants, and the reigning NL champions, the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Nats stumbled last month against teams they have a history of beating soundly. Those days are over. Washington split six games against the Giants last season, losing two of three in San Francisco, and the Giants outscored them on the season 24-17. Against the Cardinals, they were 0-6 and were outscored 19-8. The Cardinals also racked up 15 runs to the Nats' nine during a four-game split in April at Nats Park.

The Giants, owners of baseball's best record at 42-21 and winners of eight of their last 10, are especially tough at AT&T Park, where they are 22-9. Their pitchers will test the Nats' bats with the third-best ERA in the NL at 3.07 and the top WHIP at 1.15.

The Cards have been playing middling baseball of late, but their pitching is also stronger than what the Nats have seen in the past few weeks. They are fourth in the NL in ERA at 3.33 and second in WHIP at 1.18.

The good news for the Nats is that they now lead the league in ERA at 3.00 and are right behind the Giants and Cardinals in WHIP at 1.20. The winningest pitcher on the Giants staff, Madison Bumgarner, also plays into the strength of the Nats, who have clobbered left-handed pitching this season to the tune of .287/.346/.423.

It won't get any easier after this road trip. The Nats' Test of Champions continues throughout the month with back-to-back series against the division rival Atlanta Braves and the NL Central-leading Milwaukee Brewers.

If the Nats have truly turned the corner on their season, this is the time to prove it. If they are still three games over .500 or better when they return home next week, we'll know they can be serious contenders. If they are back at .500 or below, it means there's more work to do.

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. Follow him on Twitter: @martyball98. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. 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 roster of writers.

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