Royals Nationals Baseball

The Nationals’ Victor Robles celebrates his home run during the seventh inning of Sunday’s game against the Kansas City Royals in Washington.

Something odd happened across the last six weeks, as the Washington Nationals went from wasting their season to wrangling it: Almost everything went right.

The Nationals went 28-11 from May 24 to July 7, baseball’s best record for that stretch. But since they began their march in fourth place in the National League East, and way down the wild card standings, they also needed a lot of help. That’s when the New York Mets flatlined, and the Philadelphia Phillies struggled, too, and even the Milwaukee Brewers lost enough for Washington to make up all kinds of ground before the All-Star break. They did their part against weak opponents, and they also got lucky, and that combination breathed belief into a club that once looked ready to spend this month selling players.

“It’s awesome that we played as well as we played,” Nationals closer Sean Doolittle said. “But when you would glance up at the standings every couple of days just to see what else was going on, every time it seemed like, ‘Oh my gosh, we just made up like two or three games.’ That almost gives you that confidence and helps you continue that momentum.”

The Nationals didn’t depend on other teams to save their season. That had to start in their clubhouse and by cleaning up their own play. But that they benefited from others losing, and a favorable schedule heading into the break, is worth noting as the focus shifts to what’s next. Washington is atop the wild-card standings, six games back of the Atlanta Braves in the National League East, and only has a fighting chance because it won more than 70% of its last 40 games.

That will be very hard to sustain, especially considering that the Nationals recently went 10-2 against the Miami Marlins, Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals, who are all bee-lining toward 100 losses. Those teams that stumbled through June, namely the Phillies and Brewers, are looking to buy before the deadline and should pick it up. But since the Nationals are back in contention — way more than they could say when summer began — their hardest task is ahead. A new life will only matter if they do something with it.

“We have a lot of games left,” second baseman Brian Dozier said after Washington closed the first half with a win over the Royals. “It’s a long season.”

In March, April and most of May, when the Nationals were falling miles short of expectations, their veterans often reached for the same language: It’s early. There are 162 games in the season. We have time. Then, they felt like unconvincing reasons not to panic, the expected cliches, a way to shift the conversation into an uncertain future. Now it’s a reminder of how much work remains.

The Nationals begin the second half with three games in Philadelphia, then close the month with two against the Baltimore Orioles, four with the Braves in Atlanta, three with the Colorado Rockies, three home dates with the Braves and three with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have the league’s best record. It is a stretch that could break their season as quickly as it was restored. The Phillies series provides an immediate chance to separate themselves in second place. Seven matchups with the Braves will determine if Washington can really compete in the division. A set with the Dodgers will be a good measuring stick. If the Nationals can take 43 of their final 73 games, just under a .600 winning percentage, they’ll finish with 90 wins and be right in the playoff mix.

And what gives them confidence to do that, now and always, is their rotation. They have Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Max Scherzer lined up to face the Phillies, in that order, which means they’ll also each square off with the Braves next weekend. Scherzer’s past nine starts have been the best stretch of his career. Corbin has gone seven innings and given up one run or fewer in his last three outings. Strasburg has been steady all season, pitching six in all but three of his 18 appearances, and most recently struck out 14 in a win over the Marlins.

The staff as a whole, including Aníbal Sánchez and Austin Voth, has a 1.94 ERA across Washington’s last 12 games. The offense has supported its effort, despite short slumps, and players including Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner and Juan Soto just got a needed four days of rest. And while the bullpen is still a big question mark, going from historically bad to plainly unreliable, the Nationals have succeeded despite it. So the rotation is dominant besides its fifth starter, the offense does its job and the team could use a reliever or two off the trade market. It’s not a bad spot to be in.

“We’re going to see what the needs of the team are, we’re going to see where we’re at what opportunities we have to make any kind of changes,” said general manager Mike Rizzo, back on June 26, when asked how he’d approach the trade deadline. “And as we’ve done in the past, we’ve been buyers, we’ve been sellers, we’ve been a kind of a mixture of buying and selling at the same time, so this is our time to evaluate.”

That time has passed and, with two weeks of winning, the Nationals proved worthy of additional investment. Last summer, once a last-ditch effort petered out, their perspective shifted way into the future. Rizzo sent Daniel Murphy to the Chicago Cubs, and Matt Adams to the St. Louis Cardinals, and Ryan Madson to the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Gio Gonzalez to the Brewers, so they could help contending teams. The team saved a bit of money. They found comfort in Soto’s breakout rookie year, and Victor Robles’ second call-up, and how the rest of their returning core could flip their fortunes in 2019.

And while it once seemed like this August would be the same, another tired trot toward a disappointing finish, that suddenly changed. The Nationals earned themselves a chance, got a few assists along the way, and can stare down the second half with a purpose. Because now their most important test begins.

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