By winning seven of their last nine, the Nationals have barged into a first-place tie in the National League East. They have surged from two games under .500 to three games over at 32-29. They are in better condition, and playing better, now than at any point this season. And now they’ll reveal what that hot streak really means.
While the Nationals have put themselves in solid position, they can solidify their status and announce themselves as a leading contender this week, starting tonight in San Francisco. With four games against the juggernaut Giants and three more against the standard-bearer Cardinals, the Nationals will declare if the past 10 days have been more about them or the level of their opponents.
“I think it’s big,” Nationals utility man Kevin Frandsen said. “Not a pressure-big. Like, ‘Hey, let’s go out and play some ball.’ They’re a team playing great baseball as well. It’s going to be a fun atmosphere. It’s really good. We have our work cut out for us.”
The Nationals fattened up against the injury-riddled Rangers, the disastrous Phillies and the impotent Padres. Their level of dominance suggests the Nationals did more than take advantage of weak competition: They outscored them 53-16 in nine games. The Giants, though, offer a wholly different kind of test.
The 42-21 Giants have been the hands-down best team in the National League this season, and if the Nationals are hot, then the Giants’ temperature must be taken in Kelvin. They’ve won 14 of 17, and after their victory Sunday, Tim Lincecum said, “I can’t think of a time we’re as good as we are now.” In case you forgot, that’s coming from a pitcher on the team that’s won two of the last four World Series.
“I don’t know if anybody [measures up to them] right now,” Manager Matt Williams said. “They’re doing things really well.”
The Giants lead the National League with a plus-65 run differential. The Nationals do not have the gaudy record to show it, but they’re second at plus-33. They’ll send their smoldering starting pitchers — who have struck out 44 and walked one in their past six outings — against the Giants’ powerful offense. Led by old friend Michael Morse, who has 13 homers and a 152 OPS+, the Giants have scored 4.7 runs per game since May 14.
“Win the series,” said second baseman Danny Espinosa, who is 10 for 22 over his past six games. “Don’t do too much. Just stay within ourselves, keep doing what we’re doing and go in there and win a series.”
The Nationals will start behind ace Stephen Strasburg against Ryan Vogelsong, who has a 2.05 ERA over his last eight starts. There’s not a game without at least one marquee starter: The final three games of the series are Doug Fister vs. Madison Bumgarner, Tanner Roark vs. Matt Cain and Blake Treinen vs. Tim Hudson. Williams is hopeful the Nationals will get second baseman Anthony Rendon back tonight from a sore right thumb.
The series will bring a personal connection for Williams. He returned to San Francisco often as a coach with the Diamondbacks, but this week he’ll manage for the first time in the city where he broke in as a major leaguer. Williams has great affinity for the place where he spent the first 10 years of his career. He appeared in the 1989 World Series and four All-Star Games for the Giants. Fans there adored him, always treating him well even as he struggled at the outset of his career.
“It’s home,” Williams said. “It’s where I learned how to play. I had great teachers there, and lots of support there, too. It’s always a pleasure for me to go back there. People are very nice there to me. I hope to beat them, though.”
FROM THE POST
Jordan Zimmermann fired a 12-strikeout, two-hit shutout in the Nationals’ 6-0 victory over the Padres.
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Buffalo 4, Syracuse 2 (six innings): Destin Hood went 2 for 3 with a triple. Taylor Hill allowed four runs in five innings on 14 hits and no walks, striking out one.
Harrisburg 4, Akron 2: Michael Taylor went 1 for 2 with two walks and no strikeouts. Left-handed reliever Matt Grace pitched two perfect innings, striking out one, for his first save. Multiple scouts say Grace, an eighth-round pick in 2010, is one of few true prospects in Harrisburg. He owns a 1.07 ERA with 28 strikeouts, 12 walks and no homers allowed in 33 2/3 innings.
Wilmington 10, Potomac 4: Stephen Perez went 2 for 3. Tony Renda went 1 for 4 with a double. Matthew Spann allowed six runs in 4 1/3 innings on seven hits and a walk, striking out two. On Saturday, John Simms struck out 14 in seven innings
Greensboro 5, Hagerstown 4: In a rehab appearance, Jeff Kobernus went 1 for 3 with a walk. Rafael Bautista went 2 for 2 with a walk and his 29th stolen base. Nick Pivetta allowed four runs in four innings on six hits and two walks, striking out three. Over the weekend, Jake Johansen, the Nationals’ first pick in 2013, landed on the disabled. But he only has a finger blister and is not expected to miss more than a start or two.