Now 20 games over .500, Nats open up seven-game lead

Dusty Baker wanted the Nationals to finish the first half of the season strong. They did that. He wanted them to open the second half of the season strong. They've done that so far. And he wanted them to get to 20 games over .500, which they did last night after beating the Pirates 6-0.

Clearly, these guys take their manager's challenges to heart.

Baker-Coaches-Blue-Lined-Up-Sidebar.jpg"That was our goal, to be 20-over," Baker said. "We were knocking on it a couple of times and we went backwards. Also, I challenged the team to finish strong in the first half and come out the second half strong as well. A lot of times you can catch teams that are still in vacation mode right before the first half ends and right when the second half starts.

"I don't know what, we picked up like three or four games in the last six or seven? So the guys have really responded to what I asked them to do."

Indeed, the Nationals led the Mets by three games in the National League East only nine days ago. They have since won five straight (three of those over New York) and now have opened up a comfortable, seven-game lead over both the Mets and Marlins.

There is, of course, a long way yet to go, but this is a particularly encouraging sign. When the Nationals won their first division title in 2012, they didn't extend their lead to seven games until August 21. When they won it again in 2014, they didn't own a seven-game cushion until August 20.

This time, they've done it by July 15.

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