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Nationals reach the all-star break in an unfamiliar way: With a win

Nationals 7, Braves 3

The Nationals closed the first half by snapping a nine-game losing streak. (Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

In a season filled with more negatives than positives, in a month when they had won just once and in a series in which they had lost the first three games, the Washington Nationals’ 7-3 victory over the Atlanta Braves gave them a little something to appreciate at last.

Sunday’s win at Nationals Park was their first since July 6, snapping a nine-game skid. Home runs by Victor Robles and Juan Soto helped give Washington the tiniest boost of momentum. At 31-63 — the worst record in the majors — the Nationals enter the all-star break 27½ games behind the first-place New York Mets and 13½ games back of the fourth-place Miami Marlins in the National League East.

“Hopefully they take something out of this game today going forward,” Manager Dave Martinez said, “and after the break we come back and continue the momentum. … There’s still a lot of things we need to clean up to really get better and compete every day and play consistent. We’re going to work on those things a lot, as we’ve been doing.”

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Last season, the Nationals were in fourth place, 6½ games behind the first-place Mets, heading into the all-star break. After an active trade deadline included the departure of a pair of franchise icons and returned a dozen prospects, this season brought markedly different expectations. Success is measured by progress from the young players, no matter how small the improvements or how slowly they come.

Still, before the season, even the most pessimistic fan probably didn’t expect an 8-36 record against NL East foes — or for the team to be 2-14 in July.

“When I look back, a lot of growing pains,” Martinez said.

The Nationals have dealt with several injuries to their rotation, leaving six relievers to cover Sunday’s nine innings. Stephen Strasburg (stress reaction in ribs) and Joe Ross (Tommy John surgery) have combined for one start; Aníbal Sánchez (cervical nerve impingement) finally made his first Thursday. In their place, the Nationals gave a few young pitchers a look, but two of them (Jackson Tetreault and Evan Lee) are injured, and another (Joan Adon) struggled mightily.

At the plate, the Nationals haven’t been consistent: Soto has been hot of late but struggled early, and Josh Bell is the only player hitting .300. (He’s at .311 after going 1 for 3 on Sunday.) Runs have been hard to come by, especially lately — until the series finale, Washington hadn’t scored more than four in a game this month.

The Nationals hold the No. 5 pick in the draft. The stakes are high.

So Sunday’s seven runs constituted an outburst. In the second inning, Ehire Adrianza singled in a pair of runners, then Robles hit his second home run of the season, a two-run shot that made it 4-0. After the Braves scored three runs in the fourth, Adrianza provided some cushion with a fielder’s choice to push the lead to 5-3 in the bottom half. Maikel Franco added another run on an RBI single in the sixth before Soto hit a solo homer in the eighth. He finished the first half with 20 home runs and a 26-game on-base streak, his on-base-plus-slugging percentage rising to .902.

“It just shows everybody how good it feels when you win,” Soto said. “I hope they think about it when they’re home and come back with more energy to keep winning games.”

Who pitched for Washington? Erasmo Ramírez started and pitched three scoreless innings, allowing only a weakly hit first-inning single to Dansby Swanson. He gave way to Jordan Weems, who surrendered three runs while recording just one out in the fourth.

Steve Cishek, Carl Edwards Jr., Andres Machado and Kyle Finnegan covered the final 5⅔ innings without allowing a run. Martinez didn’t use right-handed reliever Cory Abbott, who was recalled from Class AAA Rochester to take the place of Hunter Harvey, then optioned back after the game.

Harvey joined Mason Thompson as the second hard-throwing reliever sent to Rochester this week. Martinez said the decision to option both was an opportunity to get them stretched out and throwing multiple innings after returning from injuries.

Did Nelson Cruz play? No, he’s still dealing with a tight quadriceps. Martinez called Cruz day-to-day, but he was available to pinch-hit. Martinez said the Nationals didn’t want to rush him back; they’re hopeful he’ll be back to being the everyday designated hitter after the all-star break. Washington opens with three games at the Arizona Diamondbacks starting Friday.

It has been an up-and-down year for the 42-year-old, whose 48 RBI rank second on the team to Bell’s 50. He’s hitting .242 with eight home runs. Given his experience, he is likely to have suitors before the trade deadline arrives Aug. 2.

Dee Strange-Gordon is back in the organization? He re-signed Sunday on a minor league deal. The 34-year-old utility man made the Opening Day roster and hit .305 in 59 plate appearances before he was designated for assignment June 14.

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