CINCINNATI - The Nationals are in their best groove so far this season, winning seven of their last nine games. They have won three series in a row for the first time this season: 3-1 versus the Marlins, 2-0 against the Braves and 2-1 versus the Reds.
The Dodgers beat the Phillies again, so the Nats, at 26-33, are seven games back in the National League East. The Nats still have a significant mountain to climb, because the Braves and Mets are not going away either, but Washington has to be proud of the way they have put together a modest run after their nightmare 10 days ago, when they were swept out of New York by the Mets for the first time ever and lost two of three at home to the Cubs.
Right-hander Max Scherzer was Cy Young-like Sunday, masterfully twirling eight innings and striking out a season-high 15 batters while allowing just one run on three hits in the Nationals' 4-1 win over the Reds.
"I don't want to get caught up in results of wins and losses. I just think we are playing better baseball," Scherzer said. "We are not making mistakes. We are not making dumb mistakes. That's really been the thing that I think, as a whole, we've been doing and that's been costing us ballgames. I just think we are playing much better team baseball overall.
"When we can play team baseball, the results will take care of themselves. If we just focus on playing good baseball, we know we have the talent to play with anybody in this league, and that's what's happening."
Nationals manager Davey Martinez has remained positive even as the team has struggled with crushing losses, injuries, errors and a brutal bullpen all rearing their ugly heads over the season's first 59 games. At least for this weekend in Cincinnati, he was able to show some pride with the results his team produced on the field in winning the final two games of the series.
"I think what I'm seeing now is the way we are winning games by doing all the little things we talk about," Martinez said. "Staying up the middle of the field, two-strike hitting, all those things. Driving in runs from third base less than two outs. If we keep doing that we are going to win a lot of games. I know that. Our starting pitching is good. Our defense has been playing better. We just got to keep it going right now."
The theme the last nine games has been the Nationals' starting pitching handing off to a bullpen that bent but did not break. But one of the biggest factors is the reawakened offense from a lineup that is filled with tough outs and a bench primed with hitters who can also do some damage.
On Sunday, second baseman Brian Dozier gave Scherzer some space to work with by smacking an opposite-field, two-run single in the eighth, turning a 2-1 nail-biter into a 4-1 lead that felt more comfortable. Scherzer said he had been pushing Dozier to start hitting to the gaps provided by exaggerated infield shifts.
"It was awesome," Scherzer said of the key hit. "I've been telling Dozier left and right, RBIs are on the right side of the field. I've been joking with him for a while, just saying 'Go over there. They're shifting so much, just use it.'
"So, for him to be able to get a huge hit in that situation and get a couple of RBIs by going the other way, that's just huge. It gives everybody a little bit more breathing room for us to go up 4-1 in that situation, allows me to be more aggressive to their hitters. Everybody feels that when everybody has success. It's great for him to have a great AB in that situation. I'm glad he was able to come through."
The offense has been built around the Nationals' most consistent hitter, third baseman Anthony Rendon. He delivered Sunday again, going 3-for-4, including the RBI single that put the Nats up 1-0 on Sonny Gray in the first inning. He also walked and scored a run.
"He's awesome. I have said this before: He's the guy that makes the lineup really go," Martinez said. "Everybody else is starting to swing the bats, but he's that constant guy that is going to get on base and drive in runs, works good at-bats every day. Having him in that three-hole was nice."
The offense was searching for another way to solve Gray in the fourth. The right-hander had settled down after allowing a run in the first, retiring seven of the next eight batters he faced. But in the fourth inning, Rendon led off with a single. He was replaced by Juan Soto on the base paths after a fielder's choice groundout to second base. Another groundout got Soto to second, setting the stage for Kurt Suzuki to come through with an RBI double.
"I got a pitch up in that last one," Suzuki said. "He hung a breaking ball with two strikes and just tried to put a barrel on it, try to find a hole somewhere, got a double, scored a run and added a run on the board, so it was good."
It was a good example of the Nationals being patient against a very good pitcher. They were able to score two runs on five hits off Gray. They weren't huge offensive numbers, but they made a big difference for Scherzer.
"We battled. He's a crafty, veteran guy," Martinez said of Gray. "He mixes his pitches up well. He got out of some innings that we could have cashed in on. But he's a good pitcher. He's been doing this for a while, so I really liked the way we played today."
The Nats offense has scored 59 runs during their 7-2 run (6.56 runs/game). That is what it will take for the Nats to climb back into the division race: timely hits, quality starting pitching, solid bullpen and tight defense. For the most part, that formula worked this past week and a half for the Nationals. There are still 102 games to go to make this race interesting.