With contributions from many, Nats have climbed back in NL East

BALTIMORE - For a few minutes Tuesday night, the Nationals found themselves tied for first place in the National League East division. And with the Braves trailing the Mets late, the Nats were on the verge of taking over sole possession of the top spot in the division for the first time since the season's first week.

A Mets bullpen collapse prevented that from happening, and so as they wake up this morning the Nationals still remain 1/2-game behind Atlanta.

Not that anyone inside the clubhouse claims to be paying attention to such things right now.

"Honestly, I didn't even know we were in first place," manager Davey Martinez said. "For me, it's just take them one day at a time. And when September rolls around, we'll see where we're at and go from there."

The mere fact the Nationals have put themselves back in this position after an 11-16 start to the season - they've won 20-of-26 since - is impressive given the injuries they've sustained along the way.

This remains a team that is missing four of its eight projected regular position players (Daniel Murphy, Adam Eaton, Ryan Zimmerman, Matt Wieters), two key bench players (Howie Kendrick, Brian Goodwin) and two key relievers (Ryan Madson, Matt Grace). Their outfield depth was so thin after prospects Victor Robles and Rafael Bautista sustained major injuries, they had no choice but to call up 19-year-old Juan Soto only a month after he was playing at low-Single-A Hagerstown.

That's an awful lot of manpower lost for a team to overcome.

"We've won a lot of close-scoring games, but we've gotten contributions from a lot of different guys," said Sean Doolittle, who notched the save in Tuesday's 3-2 win over the Orioles. "And I think that's been the key for us. The starting pitching has been unbelievable for us the whole time, and they give us a chance to win every single night. But it's almost like there are reinforcements on the way, but the guys that have been here, they've stepped up big time and it's been good."

Sean-Doolittle-throwing-gray-sidebar.jpgWhere would the Nationals be right now without the contributions of replacement starters Matt Adams (.273, 12 homers, 32 RBIs), Mark Reynolds (.417, six homers in only 12 games), Wilmer Difo (.296/.367/.493 offensive slash line in May) and Soto (11-for-28, .485 on-base percentage in his first nine MLB games)?

Yes, they've taken advantage of an easy portion of the schedule over the last few weeks. And that comes to an end this weekend in the form of a four-game series in Atlanta against the upstarts of the division.

But what could have been a season of panic and a sizeable hole to climb out of instead has turned into a season most expected from this squad.

"It's a great feeling, and it's testament to those guys," Martinez said. "Not me. Those guys go out there every day and grind it out."

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