As unforgiving as a baseball season can feel, that length also leaves room for forgiveness. The Nationals have time to recover, to redefine their season, and they took another step toward doing so with a 10-4 win over the Cincinnati Reds on Thursday night at Nationals Park. They remain five games back in the National League East because division rivals will not just hand over redemption.
But after Thursday’s win, the Nationals have won six of their past eight games, and they are two games over .500 for the first time since July 7. The last time they climbed three games over was in June.
The difference for this team, for better or worse, has been its rotation. When the rotation is pitching well, as it did in April and May, the Nationals win. On May 31, they were 10 games over .500. Their starters had the best ERA in the National League. By this past Sunday, their last game before the trade deadline, they were a game under .500. Their starters had the worst ERA in baseball since June 1.
But Max Scherzer on Thursday continued a stretch of strong starts over the past week, a run in which the Nationals have the best ERA in the NL. Strong starts allow the offense to build leads. Early leads take pressure off hitters. Relaxed hitters have more success adding to those leads. Bigger leads make for a happier bullpen. Sometimes this game is less complicated than it seems.
“The backbone of a team is always the starting staff,” Scherzer said. “And if we go out there and do our job, it allows everybody else to show their strength.”
On Thursday night, Scherzer began the night as he usually does — with a scoreless inning. Not long after, his teammates compiled the kind of rally they have not compiled enough of this season. In the second inning, the Nationals scored six runs on four hits, none of them for extra bases. Two of four batters who walked eventually scored. Nobody struck out. By that time, the Nationals had batted around three times in their past 18 at-bats.
The offense has surged lately, in part because the stalwarts around which it was built have started to play like themselves again. Bryce Harper, who went the opposite way for a single and walked in that six-run second, then added a monstrous homer in the eighth, has reached base 15 times in his past six games.
Daniel Murphy, who went 1 for 3 with a walk, raised his average to .289.
Trea Turner homered and reached safely three times. He also stole two bases, the fifth time in his past seven games he has nabbed more than one. Ryan Zimmerman didn’t start, but he is 7 for 24 with four extra-base hits since he returned from the disabled list. Scherzer singled home a run and is hitting .292.
Juan Soto walked three times Thursday, hours after being named NL rookie of the month for the second consecutive month.
When General Manager Mike Rizzo and team ownership decided against selling off free agents-to-be at the deadline — when they decided against consummating the deals they contemplated deep into Monday night — they opted to bet on the mountains of talent in that lineup. In the few days since the deadline, that talent has provided exactly what the front office thought it would all along.
“Anytime you go through a long season, you have ups and downs, and at the end of the year I think your numbers are going to be what they’re going to be,” Turner said. “We’ve played a lot of baseball, and if the numbers say that they’re lower than their career averages, I would imagine by the end of the year they’re going to be pretty close to those numbers.”
Scherzer, the steadiest presence on this team all season, threw six innings in which he allowed two runs and struck out 10. He has struck out 10 batters 12 times in 23 starts this season, and he leads all active starters with 76 10-strikeout games in his career. Nationals starters have allowed three runs or fewer in eight straight games. They have the best ERA in the NL in that span.
“A touch coincidence, a touch guys making changes and trying to find anything they can do to make themselves better,” Scherzer said by way of explanation for the surge.
That surge — and the three wins it has yielded since the trade deadline — have provided immediate — if minimal — validation for the front office’s decision to keep this team together. They are 3-0 since that day and have outscored their opponents 40-11. Those opponents — the New York Mets and the Reds — are not exactly juggernauts. But every win matters for this team.
“I’m grateful for that decision [not to sell],” Scherzer said. “Hopefully, I think we’re answering their bell. We understand the situation that we’re in. . . . We’re all going to accept that challenge.”
He and the Nationals understand they have a long climb ahead, but they still have time to put the past behind them.