Nats are winning by winning the late innings

The Nationals, you may have heard, are playing winning baseball right now.

After a weekend sweep of the Athletics, they improved to 15-8 since July 21. They’re 19-12 since July 8, which is the best record in the National League East during that time, third-best in the NL.

Something clearly has to be going right for this team that wasn’t going right earlier in the season. Or last season. Or the season before that. But what exactly is going so right for them to cause such a dramatic turnaround?

You can find improvement in just about every aspect of play, from a lineup that is scoring more runs to a defense that is committing fewer errors to a bullpen that has dramatically become one of the most effective in the league in recent weeks. And all of that is true.

But if you really want to boil it all down to one key factor, here it is: The Nationals are winning the late innings.

That’s really the difference. Consider this: Prior to July 21, the Nats were outscored 111-173 from the seventh inning on. Since then, they’ve outscored their opponents, 51-23. Yes, they’ve scored more than twice as many runs as they’ve allowed from the seventh inning on.

It’s even more dramatic when you only consider the ninth inning (plus the two extra innings they’ve played during this stretch). Since July 8, the Nationals are outscoring opponents 27-4 in the ninth and 10th innings. Twenty-seven to four.

That’s nearly one run scored every ninth inning over their last 31 games. And only four total runs allowed in the ninth in the last month-plus.

That’s how you win ballgames.

Offensively, there have been no shortage of contributors. CJ Abrams is getting on base (and then often stealing another). Lane Thomas, Joey Meneses and Keibert Ruiz are driving Abrams (and each other) in. Even less-accomplished hitters are coming through when needed, though, as evidenced during Sunday’s dramatic, six-run rally in the bottom of the ninth that was both started and ended by Jeter Downs, the last man off the bench.

But none of those offensive exploits would be remembered if the last men standing in the Nationals bullpen weren’t finishing the job.

Kyle Finnegan has developed into one of the most dominant closers in baseball. His 2.65 ERA and 1.098 WHIP look solid on paper, though hardly dominant. But eliminate a couple of early-April blowups and you start to get a clearer picture of his dominance.

In 46 appearances since April 8, Finnegan owns a 1.48 ERA and 0.966 WHIP. And he’s been automatic since reassuming the closer’s role following Hunter Harvey’s injury last month. Over his last 12 games, Finnegan has allowed zero runs on four hits and one walk while striking out 14. He’s 7-for-7 in save opportunities, shutting the door on any hope an opponent may have of coming from behind to win.

Can they keep this up? It would be a tall task to ask the lineup and Finnegan to be this good for another seven weeks. At some point, they’re going to fail to drive home the tying run in the eighth or protect a one-run lead in the ninth.

But if they can come anywhere close to performing well in the latter stages of games the rest of the way, the Nationals can continue to win more than they lose and give everyone legitimate reason for optimism by season’s end.

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