WASHINGTON – Right now, 19-31 is just a distant memory for the Washington Nationals.
Even without Max Scherzer for all but one game over the past month-plus, even with recurring bullpen issues, even though they dug themselves quite a hole, the Nationals are suddenly 65-55 – 10 games over .500 for the first time in 14 months.
What’s more, they’re leading the NL wild-card standings as they head into Friday’s opener of a three-game series against one of the clubs chasing them for a playoff berth: reigning league MVP Christian Yelich and the Milwaukee Brewers.
Winning the NL East presents more of a challenge, because Washington entered Thursday trailing the first-place Atlanta Braves by six games. The rivals play each other seven more times, though: four games at Atlanta on Sept. 5-8, and three at Washington on Sept. 13-15.
“Still a lot of work to be done. We need to keep our foot on the accelerator,” right fielder Adam Eaton said after hitting one of Washington’s three homers during a 10-run fifth inning Wednesday that propelled it to a 17-7 victory over the Cincinnati Reds, completing a three-game sweep.
“Milwaukee’s no slouch coming in here,” Eaton said. “So we have to play good baseball and continue it this weekend.”
And guess who might be able to provide some help? Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young Award winner, who declared himself “good to go” after dealing with a back problem that landed him on the injured list for most of the past five weeks.
Lefty Patrick Corbin (9-5, 3.41 ERA) is scheduled to start the series opener, but otherwise, Washington hasn’t announced who its pitchers will be Saturday or Sunday.
Could one of those games go to Scherzer, who said he doesn’t want any sort of rehab start in the minors? Manager Dave Martinez wouldn’t rule it out.
Since Scherzer’s last pre-IL start on July 6, Washington has managed to go 19-13. Lately, that success has been thanks in part to the work provided by back-of-the-rotation fill-in righties Erick Fedde and Joe Ross.
Ross, in particular, has really turned things around after toggling between the Nationals’ bullpen and the minors, going 3-0 with a 0.50 ERA.
In Fedde’s past two starts, meanwhile, he’s 2-0 with a 1.50 ERA.
“We asked these guys to step up,” Martinez said.
Another bit of good news for Washington is that Thursday’s day off gave weary closer Sean Doolittle a third consecutive day to rest.
He pitched five times in a stretch of seven games, then spoke after a shaky save in Monday’s 7-6 victory over the Reds about feeling the effects of that much use. Then Doolittle was able to take off Tuesday – when Daniel Hudson got the final four outs to save a 3-1 win – and Wednesday – when Javy Guerra worked the last three innings of the rout for a save.
“It’s mid-August. Everybody’s gassed. It’s a marathon, for sure. The good teams find a way. The good players find a way to catch that second wind. You really want to be playing your best baseball in September and peaking at the right time. There’s still every opportunity to do that,” Doolittle said.
“I’ve hit a couple of speed bumps here, recently. It hasn’t been as smooth as I wanted it to be. But I can still accomplish everything. The team can still accomplish everything we set out to at the beginning of the season. So we’re going to keep our heads down. We’re going to keep working. We want to make sure we’re playing our best baseball down the stretch in September.”
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