Taking the good with the bad

What's been different over the last six days that has allowed the Nationals to rattle off five straight wins following an embarrassing three-game sweep at the hands of the Braves?

Well, part of what's been different has been the competition. The Braves have the best winning percentage in baseball, while the Phillies and Giants are a combined 29 games under .500.

That'll certainly play a factor.

Outside of that, however, different Nats players seem to have different theories for what's led to the recent turnaround. Ian Desmond feels the Nats' play has been the same, the results have just been different. Tyler Clippard believes that the Nats hit "rock bottom" after the Braves series and then started just going out and playing without worrying about the results.

"Maybe there is something to that," Jayson Werth said. "Maybe we just said, 'Screw it.' We just got our (butts) kicked. What do we got to lose? It was definitely a flip that was switched. Hopefully, it was the right one."

Unfortunately for the Nats, their five-game winning streak has brought them closer to .500, but it hasn't really done much to push them up in the standings.

After the sweep at the hands of the Braves, the Nats were 15 1/2 games back in the division and nine games back of the Reds for the final wild card spot.

Now, the Nats sit 14 games back of first in the National League East (still very much out of reach) and 8 1/2 back in the wild card chase.

While the Nats have started to heat up, so have the Reds, who have won four in a row and seven of their last eight.

I know the Nats keep talking about how they need to just put their heads down, take care of their own business and pile up as many wins as they can, and they're right. There's no sense in the guys in that clubhouse spending time worrying about how far back they are in the wild card race at this point.

But from their perspective, it sure would've been nice if they could've used this five-game winning streak to gain two or three games on the Reds in the race for the final wild card.

If you happened to read Davey Johnson's postgame comments following last night's 6-5 win over the Giants, you noticed that he hasn't been too pleased with the work of his bullpen lately.

The Nats have been leaning far too heavily on Clippard (and to a lesser extent, Rafael Soriano), largely because the guys working in the middle relief roles have not been able to get the job done. Last night, a 6-1 game became 6-4 in the blink of an eye, forcing Clippard into action for the second straight day when it initially looked like he'd be getting a rare chance to rest.

There have been a lot of reasons for the Nationals' dropoff this season compared to last year. The bench players have struggled, left-handed hitters haven't done anything against left-handed pitching, pitchers can't hold baserunners and some new additions haven't panned out as hoped. But let's not ignore the way a handful of relievers have fallen off after strong 2012 seasons, either.

Ryan Mattheus has struggled mightily since coming off the DL (opposing hitters have reached base at a .514 clip) and now has a 6.26 ERA and .330 batting average against after posting a 2.85 ERA and holding hitters to a .241 average last season. Drew Storen is down in Triple-A Syracuse after putting up a 5.95 ERA and 1.51 WHIP in 47 games, this after he had a 2.37 ERA and 0.99 WHIP last year.

Craig Stammen's batting average against has jumped 63 points from last year, and he has a 4.15 ERA over the last two months. Ian Krol and Fernando Abad were both exceptional after getting promoted to the big leagues this season, but both have dropped off recently.

Right now, the only guy who has shown he's able to keep a lead and get it to the back end of the bullpen is Tanner Roark, who has thrown six innings without allowing an earned run since his promotion last week.

The Nats need their middle relievers to start getting the job done at a higher frequency. They have to be able to put away some 7-2 wins where Clippard and Soriano aren't needed so that those guys can get a breather and be somewhat fresh when the Nats have a 3-2 lead heading to the eighth.

Denard Span saved the Nats bullpen for a day, but that group needs to start helping itself a bit more going forward.

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