Veteran right-hander Jeremy Hellickson pitched 5 2/3 shutout innings Thursday in a 3-1 win over the Pirates. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Columnist

When Bryce Harper takes his position in right field these days, he knows what to expect. For the past three days, a group of inspired needlers has been giving him the business with variations on a raucous chant of “SkyChiefs! SkyChiefs!”

It’s not coming from bench jockeys in the bleachers riding him for his amusing quote before a Washington Nationals win Monday night. “I don’t even know our record,” Harper said then. “What is it? Okay, we’re 13-16 with the Syracuse SkyChiefs.

“So we’re doing a good job staying at .500 the best we can,” Harper said, referring to a roster that has nine players who began the year in Class AAA. “Once we get our [full] lineup back, we can get out there and do some damage.”

Who are those Harper hecklers?

“Oh, we all heard it. We have a SkyChiefs chant out there in the bullpen. We’ve been winging it [at Harper],” said reliever Sean Doolittle, grinning after a five-out save Thursday afternoon that capped a four-game sweep over the Pittsburgh Pirates at Nationals Park and got Washington back to .500 at 16-16.

“It’s one of those things we’ve been having fun with over the last few days. It’s all good,” Doolittle said.

And when a team that’s supposedly in shambles because of injuries suddenly wins five straight games, everything is always “all good.”

Now, SkyChiefs — a name Syracuse abandoned for Chiefs in 2006 — may be a rallying cry.

The Nationals’ winning streak has them just four games out of first place in the National League East, still trailing the pitching-challenged Atlanta Braves (leading at 19-11), the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies, who arrive in D.C. on Friday for a three-game series. The Nats are a mere 2½ games — hardly worth mentioning in May — behind a Mets team that, as recently as last weekend, was six games up on Washington. Then, vets such as Max Scherzer talked about how far behind a team could fall out of first place before it became a True Problem, not just an early-season fret. And the answer was: Ten games back is always serious.

Now the Nats have tipped the mood.

Few things help a contending team more than discovering it has strengths it didn’t fully appreciate. The Nats have found three big ones.

They knew they had a first-rate bench player in Howie Kendrick, but he has assumed a starting role at second base for a month, replacing injured Daniel Murphy, and seems capable of holding the fort indefinitely, hitting .292 with 15 extra-base hits.

“We were talking about the last guy we wanted to face late in a close game. [The pitchers] said maybe Howie Kendrick,” reliever Ryan Madson said. “He’s just a quality hitter. Take you to right field or still hit one out of the park. It’s really cool to have him. He’s killing it playing every day, and he’s an easy guy to root for.”

The Nats also knew they had a big lefty bench bat in Matt Adams. But maybe they didn’t realize he could take his 245 pounds to left field and do a professional defensive job (so far) when the Nats needed his bat to fill out a skinny middle of the order against right-handed pitching. In his past 20 at-bats, he has 11 hits, 11 RBI and four homers, including three bombs in the Nats’ current mini-streak.

“They call Matt ‘Big City’ — that nickname just fits him — a lumbering-looking guy who’s friendly as a teddy bear,” Madson said.

The Nats understood how important Kendrick and Adams might be and made them their top offseason targets. In spring training, owner Mark Lerner said, “Howie is the most important move we made in the offseason.”

The front office pitched Kendrick — acquired by the Nats during the 2017 season before becoming a free agent this offseason — to ownership as the only player in organized baseball with the skill set that fit the Nats’ needs: Play second, third or first base plus the outfield and be able to pinch-hit and be comfortable in the clutch. “That versatility helps you with in-game management,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said, “and in the clubhouse he’s a leader, a real big leaguer.”

By luck, Manager Dave Martinez ran into Kendrick in a Starbucks in Arizona in the offseason. “What are you doing here?” the Nats’ new manager said. “I live here,” Kendrick said.

“I just asked him, ‘What are your intentions?’ and he said he would love to come back. And I said I’d love for you to come back,” Martinez said. Just as important, Kendrick signed for two years, bringing the same versatility for 2019, especially if Murphy leaves.

The Nats identified Adams, 29, rather than ex-Nat Adam Lind, 34, as a target because Adams could handle full-time duty at first base if Ryan Zimmerman should get injured, as well as being more enthusiastic to learn the outfield. And he might even benefit from coach Kevin Long, the hitting whisperer known for helping several hitters overcome struggles against left-handed pitching.

The third Nationals player who may be of potential importance was one of the latest and least-expensive additions — veteran right-hander Jeremy Hellickson, who pitched ­5 2/ scoreless innings Thursday in a 3-1 win over the Pirates. In four turns in the rotation, Hellickson has been uniformly useful and given a super-quick hook every time.

The result has been an effective, if sometimes slightly miffed, Hellickson. He has a 3.00 ERA and only 22 men allowed on base in 21 innings. Since Hellickson has gotten little run support, Martinez has relieved him early in his third time through the batting order to give the Nats their best chance.

Pitchers despised this long before 2018. It’s the mark of a manager’s backbone if he can look a man with 201 career starts in the eye and say: I’m taking you out after only 61 pitches because I’ve got to think about the other 24 guys.

That’s what Martinez told Hellickson in a 0-0 game with two outs and a man on first in the sixth inning; he didn’t like the matchup with Gregory Polanco. Maybe 20 percent of managers I have covered would have made that move with a man pitching a two-hit shutout. A manager can learn all his players and, in the broad Joe Maddon sense, love ’em all, too, but a manager can’t care whether his players love him. You “manage for the 25,” or sooner or later, you sink your own ship.

After a dismal 7-16 slump that tested both team and manager, Martinez has clicked this week, moving Harper to leadoff, where he immediately took off. There was another move as well.

“Dave’s sneaky-smart move was batting Wilmer Difo at No. 9, like a second leadoff man, so he’d hit ahead of Harper for the rest of the game,” Rizzo said.

Almost unnoticed, in those three games, Difo has seen more fastballs, smashed out of a long slump and reached base in 10 of 11 plate appearances while hitting in front of Harper, including four walks and six runs produced.

When you look at a Nats team with Adrian Sanchez, Rafael Bautista, Trevor Gott, Pedro Severino, Andrew Stevenson, Moises Sierra, Wander Suero and Carlos Torres, who all started the year in Syracuse, they look like “SkyChiefs.”

But they, as well as vital pieces such as Kendrick, Adams and Hellickson, have helped a team that struggled through an awful April find its way back to .500. The team’s health will improve — Anthony Rendon is due back in days — and now it may be a team that just keeps rising, too.