Marty Niland: Nats need streak like they had in 2014 to get back in the race

The Nationals have played their best baseball of the season since the All-Star break, and especially since Tuesday’s non-waiver trade deadline, yet they’re still looking up at Atlanta and first-place Philadelphia in the National League East standings. What they really need right now is a winning streak, one like the amazing 10-game run they put together four years ago this month that secured their place at the top of the division.

Like this season, the Nats were under the guidance of a rookie Manager, Matt Williams. Their five-game lead entering Aug. 12, 2014 seemed far from secure after they’d lost two of three in Atlanta. Bryce Harper had been back in the lineup for more than a month after a thumb injury, but he was hitting just .243 and had yet to show consistent power.

Jayson Werth was out with a strained shoulder. Top outfield prospect Steven Souza Jr. had injured his shoulder less than a week after being called up, and a rookie named Michael A. Taylor had been summoned from Syracuse to take his place.

Taylor went 2-for-4 with a homer in his major league debut, and Harper, Ian Desmond and Anthony Rendon added homers in a 7-1 romp over the Mets at Citi Field to start the streak.

The next night, the Nats made three errors, and Drew Storen had to bail Jordan Zimmermann out of a bases-loaded jam in the seventh. Midseason acquisition Asdrúbal Cabrera hit his first homer as a Nat in the eighth before closer Rafael Soriano survived a shaky ninth inning. Desmond made the key defensive play at short, throwing home to cut down the tying run in a 3-2 win.

The Nats completed the sweep as Stephen Strasburg shook off an inconsistent start and limited the Mets to three hits over seven innings, while Harper and Adam LaRoche hit home runs in a 4-1 victory.

The Nats returned home, where Harper and LaRoche again sparked the offense with two hits and two RBIs each in a 5-4 win over Pittsburgh. Soriano again survived a high-wire act in the ninth before recording his 29th save.

The next night, a raucous crowd at Nats Park helped spur the Nats to the first of three successive walk-off wins 4-3. Washington trailed 3-0 entering the eighth, but LaRoche launched a homer to tie it. Harper led off the ninth with a walk, took second on a wild pitch, and scored the winning run on Wilson Ramos’ ground-rule double.

The drama was even higher the next day as the Nats won 6-5 in 11 innings to run the streak to six. Doug Fister went seven, but left trailing 2-1 thanks to errors by Desmond and Rendon. The Nats took the lead on two wild throws by Pittsburgh infielders and carried it into the ninth, but Soriano had what might have been his worst outing of the season. He retired only one batter before surrendering the lead on a two-run double and exited the game to boos from the hometown fans. Matt Thornton ended the inning, but it looked like the streak was in danger.

However, Werth, in his first action in a week, drew a one-out, pinch-hit walk and scored on a hit by Cabrera. Ross Detwiler pitched two scoreless innings in relief before Werth led off the 11th with a double and scored on Scott Hairston’s single.

Arizona came in next, and the Nats again had to go to extras. Zimmermann entered the eighth inning up 2-1, but surrendered a two-run homer. The Nats regained the lead on Rendon’s RBI triple and Werth’s sac fly, but Tyler Clippard blew the save this time, allowing a solo homer to lead off the ninth. In the 11th, LaRoche belted his third homer of the streak for a 6-5 victory.

After four straight tense wins, the Nats needed a laugher, and they got one. Strasburg pitched his second straight three-hit game to even his record at 10-10, and Desmond drove in four on a 3-for-4 night as the Nats won 8-1.

Another walk-off awaited the Nats the next night. This time, Soriano preserved a 2-2 tie in the ninth before Rendon won it with a base hit to score Harper.

The next afternoon, the teams battled through eight shutout innings, with Gio Gonzalez tossing seven. Rendon was again the hero, this time with a one-out RBI single.

The streak ended the next night at the hands of the San Francisco Giants, who would eventually end the Nats’ season by winning three of four games in the NLDS. But the Nats had matched the franchise mark for successive wins and gained two games on the Braves, who never seriously threatened again. Harper regained his batting stroke, Strasburg turned his season around and Werth had returned from injury to show his trademark leadership.

Nats fans now hope the team can turn this season around with a similar run.

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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