After surviving opening stretch, time for Nats to start thriving

They faced an 11-game opening gauntlet against nothing but two division rivals expecting to win this season. They’ve been without their starting shortstop for more than two weeks now. They continue to have to piece together their bullpen on a nightly basis, hoping to find a combination that records the necessary outs before giving up too many runs.

Things have not gone swimmingly for the Nationals so far in 2019. And yet after hanging on for Thursday’s 4-2 win over the Giants, they left town with a 9-8 record, prepared for a geographically odd road trip to Miami and Colorado having survived this first stretch of the season.

Doolittle-White-w-Gomes-sidebar.jpg“You lose 60-70 games, and you’ve still got a good record,” catcher Yan Gomes said, downplaying the significance of the club’s April issues. “You’ve got to understand it’s early in the year. We do need to maybe start taking these games, in a way, more serious, because games like this are going to matter towards the end. But I think it’s no issues. I think it’s just something that it happened, now we’ve got to move on. ‘Cause if we keep looking at the past, it’s not going to help us unless we learn from it.”

If the Nationals aren’t going to look back, all they can do is look forward. And looking forward, they can’t help but see a promising opportunity staring them directly in the face.

The Marlins, in full-blown rebuild mode, have lost 9 of 10 and enter the weekend series with a major league-worst 4-15 record. The Rockies, expected to challenge for the National League West crown after reaching the postseason in 2018, were a disappointing 6-12 heading into a four-game weekend series with the National League East-leading Phillies.

Is it perhaps time for the Nationals to stop surviving and start thriving?

“Absolutely,” closer Sean Doolittle said. “I think now is that time. I think it kind of started with this series. We had a chance to win (last weekend’s) series against Pittsburgh; we kind of let it get away. But bouncing back, winning this series, we go on the road and face a couple teams that ... they’re not playing their best right now.”

As much attention and drama as there already has been in games involving the NL East’s four expected contenders, the games against the Marlins may matter just as much in deciding who emerges victorious in this division.

The contenders have mostly beaten up on each other to date. The Phillies are 7-4 against the other three division rivals. The Nationals are 6-6. The Mets are 6-7. The Braves are 2-5.

But everyone has beaten up on the Marlins, with the Phillies and Braves each taking 2 of 3 and the Mets sweeping their series in Miami. Now the Nationals get their first three of 19 games against the division-cellar-dwellers, and they must make the most of it.

A series win is the minimum acceptable result. A three-game sweep must be considered a realistic goal.

No series at Coors Field is easy. And certainly the thin mountain air will pose a real problem for the Nationals bullpen. But an opportunity to take advantage of a struggling Rockies club can’t be wasted, either.

“This is a chance maybe we can strike, win a couple series, come back home,” Doolittle said. “This road trip’s really important for us.”

For all their issues so far, the Nationals have managed to survive. At some point, though, they need to start thriving. And they may get no better opportunity to do just that than in the coming week.

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