Here’s what the Nationals accomplished over the last two weeks: By winning 11 of 14 games, they climbed their way out of a significant hole, briefly reached the .500 mark and moved into sole possession of second place in the National League East, now within striking distance of the first-place Mets.
It was the best two-week stretch this club has experienced since the end of the 2019 season, a true turnaround for a team that looked ready to collapse altogether and head into a long, hot summer looking to sell off veterans instead of buying pieces in an attempt to contend.
Now for some harsh dose of reality: If they can’t at least hold the course over the next two weeks against the toughest stretch of schedule they’ll face all year, the last two weeks won’t have meant much in the big picture.
Yes, the true gantlet now awaits the Nationals as they return home from a 4-2 trip to Philadelphia and Miami. It comes in the form of a seven-game homestand against two current division contenders (the Mets and Rays, then the defending World Series champion Dodgers). And then it concludes with a seven-game trip out west, where the equally dangerous Padres and Giants await before what will be a much-needed All-Star break for everyone.
That’s 14 games in 14 days, every one of them against teams currently in playoff position. It’s not going to be a picnic.
“This is what you play for. You want to play the best teams in the game,” ace Max Scherzer said Sunday in his Zoom session with reporters following his win over the Marlins. “We have a stretch here where we’re playing a bunch of really good teams across the league. We’ve got to take care of business. This is when you find out about yourself, when you start facing the best.”
The Nationals’ recent surge, to be fair, has come against a mix of top competition and also-rans. They went 5-3 against the Giants and Mets during their last homestand, but also cleaned up against the last-place Marlins and Pirates and a struggling Phillies club to the tune of a 7-2 record.
There are no breaks in this upcoming stretch, neither days off nor matchups with rebuilding opponents. And it begins tonight with a quick one-off against New York, which returns to town to make up one of the three early-April games that were lost when the Nats experienced a COVID-19 outbreak.
The Mets, after losing to the Phillies on Sunday, enter play with a three-game lead over the Nationals and a roster decimated by injuries. They’ll be sending 30-year-old right-hander Jerad Eickhoff to the mound to make only his second major league start of the season after producing a 5.32 ERA in eight Triple-A starts for Syracuse.
Not that the Nats are in much better position from a pitching standpoint. With Erick Fedde now on the 10-day injured list with a strained left oblique muscle, manager Davey Martinez said he intends to go with a bullpen game tonight. That probably means multiple innings apiece from Paolo Espino and Jefry Rodriguez, plus anyone else who’s available to pitch.
Joe Ross and Jon Lester are then lined up to start against the Rays on Tuesday and Wednesday, with Patrick Corbin and Scherzer on track to start the first two games of a big four-game holiday weekend series against the Dodgers.
It’s tempting to think about the possibility of the Nationals sustaining this run, getting over the .500 hump for good and heading into the All-Star break on a high. But they have to be careful not to think that’s absolutely required of them right now.
Really, they need to hold their own. They need to emerge from this stretch right around the .500 mark, a game or two below, or a game or two above. If they can do that, they’ll return for the second half and face a schedule far less daunting on paper.
Yes, they open with three games against the Padres at home. But after that, the season’s final 70 games include 43 games against fellow NL East opponents, 24 games against the Marlins, Rockies, Pirates and Orioles, and only 24 games against teams that currently own a winning record.
Not that anyone inside the clubhouse is letting himself think about any of that yet.
“It’s like the old (adage): You can’t get all the runs back with one swing,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “You’ve got to get a rally. You’ve got to put at-bats together. We’ve been doing that and winning ballgames. We’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing. Don’t try to do more or less. Go out there and compete, whoever’s in front of us, and move on to the next day.”