Nationals have gained some ground and are hoping for more

After a 10-1 loss to the New York Mets on June 5, the Nationals trailed the Atlanta Braves by a season-high eight games. The Nationals’ record fell to 29-30, and the Braves led the National League East with a 37-22 record. Since then, the deficit has been shaved in half to four games. In the month-plus since June 5, the Braves are 13-16 and the Nationals 17-12.

The Braves lead the division thanks to a 12-1 start to the season. Without that, they are .500 baseball team. The Nationals, a .500 team for much of the season, have mounted a minor comeback with a four-game winning streak, the second longest of the season, thanks to improved health and their best offensive stretch of the season. Since June 5, the Braves have averaged four runs per game and posted a 3.33 ERA. The Nationals have averaged 4.5 runs per game with a 3.49 ERA.

“We can creep up a little bit,” Ryan Zimmerman said. “There’s a bunch of good teams in this division that we have to play. It’s not going to happen just like that. We have to continue the kind of baseball we have played for the past week, two weeks for the rest of the season if we want to accomplish what we want to accomplish.”

Throughout their inconsistencies over the past months, some Nationals players have maintained that they hope to remain in striking distance by the all-star break. So far, the Nationals have done just that and managed to chip off a few games in the standings. The week ahead presents a minor opportunity to continue that trend. The Nationals play seven games against division opponents — four against the Philadelphia Phillies and three against the Miami Marlins. The Braves play three against the Marlins and four against the Cincinnati Reds, who have the third-best record in the NL.

Toss out the games against the Marlins and the Nationals are facing a Phillies team, at 43-46, that is on the verge of deciding whether it will sell off its parts. The Braves, however, will face the Reds, one of the best pitching staffs in the majors, with an offense that continues its wildly streakiness. The Braves, averaging 4.35 runs per game and lead the NL with 108 home runs, curiously have been shut out 11 times. They’ve also lost 25 of their past 39 road games.

The Nationals will have a few of their own challenges against Philadelphia. They’re dead last in the majors with a .626 OPS against left-handed pitching, and the Phillies will send John Lannan to the mound on Monday, followed by Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. (The addition of Scott Hairston to the Nationals could help, as could perhaps resting Denard Span against the toughest of the three left-handers, and maybe even sitting Adam LaRoche for another day, or sitting Bryce Harper.) The Phillies bullpen, however, is a mess; their 4.58 ERA is second-worst in the majors. The team’s hitting has been inconsistent of late, too.

So imagine if the Nationals were to gain one more game on the Braves heading into next week’s all-star break: three games behind to start the second half would be an accomplishment, given the team’s months-long struggles. The Nationals, however, would have to maintain their current offensive improvement and receive encouraging outings from struggling Dan Haren, who returns from the disabled list on Monday, and rookie Taylor Jordan.

“The standings are the standings,” reliever Tyler Clippard said. “We can’t really control what the other teams are doing. Yeah, it’s nice to be four back with really not having played tremendously well up to this point. We’ve been playing well the last two weeks, but other than that it’s been kind of a struggle for us. So it’s nice. I think we feel confident about where we’re at.”

FROM THE POST

Offense gives Stephen Strasburg support in Washington’s fourth straight win.

To Bryce Harper and Davey Johnson, ‘play me or trade me’ is just a healthy joke, writes Thomas Boswell.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Drew Storen’s ‘highlight’ inning

Bryce Harper clarifies comments, asked to participate in Home Run Derby

Ross Detwiler officially placed on the disabled list

Report: Nationals trade for outfielder Scott Hairston

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Buffalo 6, Syracuse 2 (7): Yunesky Maya coughed up six runs, four earned, on nine hits over five innings. Christian Garcia tossed a scoreless innings. It was his seventh appearance for Syracuse and he’s allowed three earned runs over 8 1/3 innings. Will Rhymes went 3 for 3 and drove in two runs.

Buffalo 4, Syracuse 1 (7): Facing Chien-Ming Wang, Danny Espinosa went 1 for 3 and drove in Syracuse’s lone run. Tyler Robertson started and allowed four runs on five hits over 1 2/3 innings. Xavier Cedeno pitched a scoreless inning to lower his ERA to 1.93. Michael Broadway tossed two scoreless. Espinosa has raised his average to .180 with a recent 10 for 21 stretch in which he has struck out only five times.

Harrisburg 1, Bowie 0 (7): Robert Gilliam allowed only one hit over six scoreless and Aaron Barrett notched his 17th save. Jerad Head knocked in the only run, a solo shot.

Harrisburg 6, Bowie 2 (5): Matt Swynenberg allowed two runs, none earned, over five innings. Jerad Head hit his 12th home run and finished 2 for 3 with four RBI.

Potomac 5, Wilmington 2: Brian Rauh allowed two runs, one earned, over six innings. Richie Mirowski lowered his ERA to 1.71 with two scoreless innings. Billy Burns went 3 for 5 with two RBI.

Hagerstown 11, Delmarva 7: Kylin Turnbull allowed six runs, five earned, over 2 1/3 innings. Bryan Harper picked up his five win by allowing only one run over 2 2/3 innings of relief. Brandon Miller hit his 16th homer, a grand slam. Estarlin Martinez hit a three-run shot.

Auburn was postponed.

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010 and, prior to covering the Nationals, covered high school sports across the region.
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James Wagner · July 8, 2013