With improvement in all phases, Nats inching back into race

They had just been swept in ugly fashion in New York. Their bullpen was a disaster. Their defensive play was sloppy. Their manager’s job security was being questioned.

The Nationals were 12 games under .500 on May 24, 10 games back in the National League East, and few gave them any chance of resurrecting themselves at that point. Only a handful of teams this century had managed to even finish with a winning record after playing so poorly through their first 50 games.

As the team returned home from that four-game sweep against the Mets, Mike Rizzo faced hard questions about the state of his organization. He steadfastly refused to concede anything on that day.

“Believe me, I’m like a lot of the fan base, a lot of the players and the manager: It’s hard to watch sometimes,” the longtime general manager said. “But we’re certainly not going to pull the plug before we’re a third of the way through the season. We’re a big league club. We’ve got a talented big league roster. And we’ve got to play better baseball. That’s it.

“We’re fairly spoiled in that clubhouse. We’ve won a lot of games for a lot of years, and we’re used to winning. It’s not happening right now, but we’re not going to pull the plug on the season less than a third into it.”

Three weeks later, Rizzo’s refusal to pull the plug is being rewarded. He hasn’t been vindicated entirely yet; there’s still a long way to go and a lot of ground yet to make up. But the Nationals legitimately look like a different team today than they did at the end of that ugly series at Citi Field.

Even with Tuesday night’s 7-5 loss to the White Sox, the Nationals are 12-5 since May 24, the third-best record in the NL. They’ve won four of six series played, splitting the other two. They’ve outscored the opposition 108-69 in that time and owned a positive run differential for the season before this latest loss, even though they’re still five games under .500 at 31-36.

How have they done it? It’s not as simple as improvement in only one aspect of the game. The Nationals have been better across the board ...

OFFENSE
Rizzo and manager Davey Martinez kept insisting the Nationals would have a productive lineup once it was back to full health again. How could a lineup at one point missing its No. 2, No. 3, No. 4 and No. 5 hitters be expected to carry the load?

Well, they’re nearly back to 100 percent health again, aside from at first base. And the results suggest this is now one of the better lineups in the league.

Since May 24, the Nationals have scored an average of 6.35 runs per game, most in the majors. They rank second in on-base percentage (.357), fourth in batting average (.279) and OPS (.851), and fifth in slugging (.494).

Seven Nationals regulars sport an OPS of .881 or better during this run, with Howie Kendrick (1.198) and Anthony Rendon (1.085) leading the way with gargantuan numbers.

Trea Turner’s finger is healing and allowing him to hit for power again atop the order, and Brian Dozier has turned his season around after a sluggish opening six weeks, providing depth to the lineup and rarely allowing opposing pitchers to take a breath.

STARTING PITCHING
Though Patrick Corbin, with three consecutive subpar starts, is in a real funk right now, the rest of the Nationals rotation has been excellent during this run. As a group, their starters rank fifth in the majors with a 3.49 ERA since May 24, eighth with a 1.16 WHIP and 10th with 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings.

And it’s not just the usual suspects. Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg continue to lead the way, but Aníbal Sánchez and Erick Fedde have been just as important to the overall effort in recent weeks.

Sanchez-Winds-Gray-sidebar.jpgSánchez, after a horrible start to his season, has returned from a hamstring injury to post a 1.04 ERA in three starts. Fedde, finally seizing an opportunity to start when Jeremy Hellickson landed on the injured list, has a 2.70 ERA in four starts and a 2.93 ERA in nine appearances this season.

Corbin needs to straighten himself out, no doubt. But even with the lefty searching for answers, the Nationals rotation has become a strength again, no longer a weakness.

RELIEF PITCHING
Yes, this remains the biggest area of need out of the entire roster, but the Nationals bullpen has been performing far better than you might realize during this stretch. Since May 24, Nats relievers own a 4.35 ERA (10th best in the majors) and 1.22 WHIP (third-best in the majors) while walking only 2.44 batters per nine innings (third-best in the majors).

Martinez has been searching for a couple of reliable setup men to pitch in front of Sean Doolittle for weeks, and he may finally have found one in Tanner Rainey. The hard-throwing righty has a 1.64 ERA and 0.909 WHIP in 11 games, and he’s thrived in several high-leverage spots over the last week-plus.

Wander Suero and Matt Grace, when used in smaller doses, have pitched much better than they did earlier this season when summoned on a near-daily basis. Javy Guerra isn’t pitching in high-leverage spots, but he is providing quality innings (three runs in 10 1/3 innings) and allowing Martinez to stay away from other overworked arms.

As has been the case all along, Trevor Rosenthal could be the linchpin to the whole operation. An unmitigated disaster in April, he spent four weeks on a rehab assignment with Double-A Harrisburg, then produced his first scoreless inning of the season Monday night in a blowout win. It’s far too soon to declare Rosenthal back, but he’ll continue to get opportunities to ease his way back into the mix and perhaps help further solidify a Nationals bullpen that is not nearly the mess it was a few weeks ago.

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