Nats finish toughest portion of schedule with series sweep

PHILADELPHIA - It won't go down as their best 20-game stretch of the season, but it didn't need to be that. The Nationals simply needed to make it through the toughest three weeks of the 2016 campaign in one piece and not squander what they'd already built up over the previous four months.

So in that regard, the Nationals' 11-9 record over the last 20 days - capped off by tonight's 2-1 victory over the Phillies - turned out to be an important development for a team that looked gassed at times but heads into its first off-day in a long time feeling plenty good about itself.

"I'm proud of these guys," manager Dusty Baker said. "Cause that's a tough stretch. There are some teams that had that same 20-game stretch that didn't do as well. There are a few that did pretty good. The main thing is, we finished strong. I always tell my guys: Finish strong. We finished strong with three in a row the last three days of August."

Indeed, the Nationals swept the Phillies to finish 17-11 in August. That turned out to be their second-best month this season, bested only by their blistering 16-7 mark in April.

Baker has noted several times this summer that he still doesn't believe his team has hit its stride and put together a truly strong, prolonged stretch. Which is probably true. The Nats' best performance in any string of 20 games has been 14-6.

But there's an important flip side to this discussion as well: The Nationals haven't slogged through any prolonged slumps, either. Yes, they lost seven in a row at one point in June, but they followed that up with six straight wins. And their worst 20-game stretch this season featured a 9-11 record.

That's the mark of a very good and very consistent ballclub.

"That tells you about our pitching, I think, number one," Baker said. "Because that's what stops you from going on prolonged streaks. And some timely hitting, like tonight."

Ramos-Swings-Gray-Sidebar.jpgSure enough, the Nationals won this game thanks to a particularly timely hit from a guy who has delivered plenty of them this season: Wilson Ramos.

Batting with two outs in the top of the seventh in a 1-1 game after Anthony Rendon doubled, Ramos quickly fell behind 0-2 in the count. He then battled back, working the count full against Phillies left-hander. Finally, on the eighth pitch of the at-bat, he lined a base hit to right. Rendon came home, Ramos notched his 71st RBI and the Nationals took the lead for good.

"I was mainly concentrating on putting the ball in play, and focused on that," Ramos said through interpreter Octavio Martinez. "I know we needed a hit in that situation to drive the run in."

Ramos' ability to put together those kind of tough at-bats all season has helped elevate him into one of the league's best hitters.

"Yeah, and the more times you come through, the more times you think you can come through," Baker said. "Success breeds success. Wilson's a battler."

As are the Nationals. They knew this would be their toughest portion of the schedule, but even after watching players land on the disabled list, starting pitchers get knocked out early and relievers asked to pitch five out of every six days, they emerged still breathing and still sitting pretty atop the National League East.

When this stretch began Aug. 12, they led the division by 7 1/2 games. As it ends, they've extended that lead to nine games over the Mets, who they'll face this weekend at Citi Field.

"Our guys, they gave me all they had," Baker said. "Now I'm urging them to have a good day off, get your rest, eat well and then we'll start up again against the Mets."

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