Beltway Series offers latest challenge for improving Nats

The Nationals enjoyed a day off Monday, a sorely needed day off. They just played 13 games in 13 days, a stretch that included series against the defending World Series champions, the most star-studded roster in baseball and a four-game wraparound series that concluded with a getaway night game and then a 3-hour flight to the next city.

How’d they handle that grueling stretch? Quite well.

The Nats went 7-6 over the last two weeks, reaching the .500 mark on four separate occasions (though never clearing that magical hurdle when presented the opportunity).

They did this despite what at times has been a listless lineup, hurt by a combination of severely slumping regulars and injured veterans. Davey Martinez had to enlist the likes of Ildemaro Vargas and Alex Call to serve as his No. 5 and No. 6 hitters at times, hardly the names he envisioned when scribbling out potential lineups during spring training.

The Nationals managed to survive – even thrive, some might say – this stretch thanks to mostly quality pitching (3.48 team ERA over the last 10 games), solid defense (until a rough two-game stretch over the weekend) and a grittiness that has allowed them to pull off 12 come-from-behind wins this season (most in the majors).

They have also, to be fair, done well against lesser competition. Six of those seven wins came against the woeful Marlins and the struggling Blue Jays. And that’s a continuation of a season-long trend: The Nats are 13-9 against sub-.500 opponents.

They haven’t been nearly as successful against better competition, getting swept by the Dodgers at home (after admittedly winning two of three in Los Angeles the previous week) and losing a series to the Rangers. Overall, the Nationals are just 4-8 against teams with winning records so far this year.

And now come the Orioles, owners of the best record in the American League, not to mention the best run differential. And they haven’t achieved that record by beating up on weaklings: Baltimore is a stout 14-5 against teams over .500.

So these next two games – the first leg of the annual Beltway Series – are both a challenge and a measuring stick for the Nationals.

Nobody would try to claim this is an even matchup, not at this point. The Orioles, after a long and painful rebuild, now boast one of the best young rosters in the sport. The Nationals, still trying to climb out of their own painful rebuild, are much more competitive but aren’t all the way out of the darkness just yet.

But this is an opportunity for Martinez’s club to show how far it has come. Baltimore swept last year’s four-game series by a combined score of 11-1. The Nats didn’t finally score a single run until the fourth and final game.

They should have every reason to believe they’ll be more competitive this time around. Maybe not to the point of winning the series. But at least winning a game. And ideally scoring at least a few times in each of them.

And if they can keep games close, the Nationals might be able to showcase their greatest strength to date this season. They’ve been a superior team in late innings, outscoring opponents 50-44 from the seventh inning on, thanks to a lights-out bullpen and a lineup that has a knack for finally coming through against opposing relievers.

If they can continue that trend, the Nats might just emerge from the Beltway Series winning over a few more converts, not to mention a long-awaited winning record of their own.

Robert Garcia activated off IL, Matt Barnes design...
Monday morning Nats Q&A

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