MIAMI - When they left New York on the evening of May 23, the Nationals were a defeated ballclub. They were blowing games in every manner possible. Their manager’s job security appeared to be shaky. They were 12 games under .500 and facing a long, slow, unlikely climb back into contention.
When they leave Miami late tonight, the Nationals will be flying sky high. They’re winning games behind a potent lineup, a dominant rotation and a bullpen that is finding a way to get the job done far more regularly than it doesn’t. Their manager is earning praise for the manner in which he has kept the clubhouse together during trying times. And they once again own a .500 record.
The Nationals, by virtue of tonight’s come-from-behind 8-5 victory over the Marlins, have now won 21 of 30 since that ugly evening in New York. They now head to Detroit owners of a 40-40 record, poised to enter the second half of the season on a tear and complete their climb back up the standings.
And they did all this in only five weeks, an expedited timeframe that has surprised even the most optimistic figures in the clubhouse.
“I think anybody that said no would be lying,” first baseman Matt Adams said. “We’re not really focused too much on what our record is those last 30 games. But I think it just goes back to taking it one game at a time, really focusing on just going 1-for-1 that day and getting a win and carrying it over, keeping the momentum rolling onto the next day.”
That one-day-at-a-time philosophy, preached constantly by manager Davey Martinez, has paid off. By keeping their eyes off the big picture, the Nats have played a more relaxed - and, in turn, clean - brand of baseball and are now turning those agonizing losses of April and May into uplifting wins in June.
“If you watched our games all year long, there was always that extra fight, that extra push,” Martinez said. “And granted, it’s no secret: Our bullpen struggled. But you could see it. We’d come back. We just couldn’t finish out the games. And now we’re finishing the games. It’s a great feeling.”
The ultimate task, of course, is far from finished. The Nationals have played .700 ball over these last five weeks. If they somehow keep up that torrid pace the rest of the way, they’ll finish with 97 wins. If they play a more reasonable but still impressive .600 ball the rest of the way, they’ll finish with 89 wins.
“Definitely a lot more to accomplish,” Martinez said.
Which, of course, is true. This all means nothing if the Nationals don’t continue the trend over the season’s final three months. But what they have already accomplished should not be glossed over. They are only the sixth National League team in the modern era to fall 12 games under and make it all the way back to .500 before July 1. The previous one to do it (the 2009 Rockies) made the postseason.
The Nationals joined that list thanks to a three-game sweep of the Marlins, the last two in come-from-behind fashion.
Down 4-1 after five innings tonight, they finally figured out right-hander Sandy Alcantara and exploded for five runs in the top of the sixth, with Adams and Victor Robles each launching tape-measure home runs.
The Nationals came into this game with an ultra-aggressive approach against Alcantara. They made an out on the first pitch of three separate innings, and he completed his first three frames on a scant 29 pitches.
Juan Soto did tag a 3-1 fastball to the opposite field for a solo homer in the fourth, but that was the extent of the Nats’ offense the first two times through the lineup.
But then came the top of the sixth and a third trip through the order. And just as they did Wednesday night against Zac Gallen, the Nationals figured out Alcantara in a big way. They racked up five hits in the span of eight batters, and four of those hits went for extra bases.
The biggest blasts came from Adams and Robles, and they echoed throughout the mostly empty Marlins Park. Adams, whose three-run homer in the sixth off Wei-Yin Chen gave the Nationals the lead Wednesday night, did it again with a moonshot down the right field line off a hanging slider.
“I think I’m calm at the plate, getting ready a little sooner, getting my foot down on time and laying off those tough borderline pitches for the most part,” said Adams, who has hit six homers in his last 11 starts.
That blast tied the game 4-4. Two batters later, Robles untied it with his own blast to left, also off an Alcantara slider.
“We always felt good about our lineup,” said Kurt Suzuki, who added his own homer in the eighth for a tack-on run. “We feel like we can score runs at any time, multiple runs at any time. Sometimes it takes a couple times through the order, but we got him.”
All of this turned a potential loss into a potential win for Stephen Strasburg, who wasn’t at his best tonight but perked up once he had a lead and finished strong. The Marlins did a nice job putting bat on ball, especially on his curveball, which played a big role in a three-run bottom of the third. Adam Eaton’s misplay on Miguel Rojas’ cue shot into right field - originally scored a hit and an error, later changed to a straight double - didn’t help, but Strasburg wound up charged with all three runs.
The right-hander also was charged with a run in the fifth when he surrendered three consecutive two-out singles, the last of which extended Miami’s lead to 4-1.
But Strasburg excelled when it mattered most. He turned in a shutdown inning in the bottom of the sixth, then stranded a runner in scoring position in the seventh, walking off the mound having thrown 111 pitches and set up his bullpen to try to close this one out and lift the Nationals back to the once-elusive .500 mark.
“I’ve been saying it all along: I think we’ve got great chemistry in the clubhouse, and we’re all in here playing for each other,” Strasburg said. “We’re giving everything we have. The results are just results. I think the things we can control are going out there and playing the game the right way and trying to do the little things. And we’ve improved on that. The ultimate goal is to be better at the end of the year than you are the start of the year.”
They’re most definitely better today than they were five weeks ago. Check back in three months to see if they were even better at the finish line.