At the end of play on April 28, the Nationals didn’t very much look like a legitimate contender. With an 11-16 record, they found themselves in fourth place in the National League East, a full six games back of the first-place Mets, a full 4 1/2 games back of the third-place Braves. Only three teams in the NL had worse records, and all were among the group of franchises known to be tanking this season: the Padres, Marlins and Reds.
So what happened? Well, since then, all the Nationals have done is play better baseball than anybody else in the majors.
Their 13-2 record since April 29 is not only tops in the NL but tops among all big league clubs. And it’s not a fluke: Their plus-34 run differential during this stretch also in best in baseball. True, they’ve only moved up to third place in the division, but they’re only two games back of the surprisingly first-place Braves and a half-game back of the second-place Phillies.
Now the remarkable part of it all: The Nationals have performed this dramatic turnaround despite having lost Matt Wieters and Ryan Zimmerman to significant injuries during this hot streak, despite having yet to have Daniel Murphy take an at-bat for them this season, despite learning Adam Eaton’s return will be delayed quite a while after he needed arthroscopic surgery to remove a flap of cartilage from his ankle.
The Nationals already have had 37 different players on their active roster this season, fourth-most in the majors. Seven players currently on the roster were not on the opening day roster.
How, then, have the Nats been able to play their best baseball of the season despite not having their best players available to them?
“For me, it’s just trusting the players that we have,” manager Davey Martinez said. “They’re here, and they’re here for a reason. We tell them every day: ‘You can play here. That’s why you’re here. So go out there, play and have fun.’ That’s the gist of it.”
There are reasons for the turnaround, though, beyond backups and call-ups stepping in and playing well. And the biggest reason is dominant pitching, mostly from guys who have been here from the beginning.
The Nationals are scoring a few more runs now than they previously did. They averaged 4.44 runs per game before April 29; they’re averaging 4.60 runs per game since (12th-best in the majors). They have done this by improving their slugging percentage (from .388 to .444, which ranks 10th in the majors) and their batting average with runners in scoring position (from .228 to .265, which ranks eighth).
But the most dramatic improvement has actually come in the pitching department, even though there have been fewer changes to that portion of the roster.
The Nationals’ staff ERA before April 29 was 4.07 (15th in the majors). Since then, it’s a sparkling 2.18 (best in the majors). The starters lead the way with a 1.78 ERA over these last 15 games, but the relievers have significantly improved along the way, from a 5.03 ERA pre-April 29 that ranked 26th in the majors to a 3.15 ERA that ranks sixth since.
The journeyman right-hander is not surprised by new team’s ability to resurrect a season that had been going downhill a few weeks ago.
“I’ve seen these guys play the last two years,” said Hellickson, who spent most of 2016 and 2017 in Philadelphia. “I don’t know how many times they came back when I was on the Phillies, how many times they came back in the last two, three innings. It’s just a team that believes and is confident. We know we’re never out of a ballgame. Then obviously we’ve got great starting pitching, great bullpen, great defense. It’s just a very talented team to be on. It’s fun to watch.”
With Eaton and Murphy out the majority of the season to date, and Wieters and Zimmerman now joining them on the DL, the Nationals’ position player depth has been put to the test. And though there are still concerns about that group, enough role players have been able to step in and make positive contributions, whether Matt Adams taking over as cleanup hitter, Howie Kendrick capably filling in at both second base and left field, Wilmer Difo forced to play third base while Anthony Rendon was out or Pedro Severino now ascending to the No. 1 catching role.
“I think that’s happened in the last three, four years,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “This year maybe especially. But when I got hurt last year, it gave Difo a chance to play 100 games. That’s big, because now he’s playing again. And that experience helped him. Stuff like that happens all the time, and I think that’s how you get deep as an organization.”
The road doesn’t get any easier for the Nationals, even though they now come home after their second West Coast trip in the season’s first six weeks. They host the equally red-hot Yankees the next two nights in a marquee matchup of two clubs loaded with star power.
Can a team featuring the likes of Difo, Severino, Andrew Stevenson and Mark Reynolds take down the Bronx Bombers? Their manager doesn’t know the answer to that yet, but he does know he’ll enjoy watching them try.
“I keep saying these guys play with a lot of heart,” Martinez said. “It’s been a lot of fun. They’re really starting to have fun, they’re really starting to click. I love coming to the ballpark and watching them play.”