MIAMI — An encouraging component of the first quarter or so of the Washington Nationals’ season is that they are in first place in the National League East and do not seem to have exhausted all their resources to get there. Several key hitters are not yet hitting like their résumés suggest they will. Their Opening Day starter and arguable ace has the worst ERA of any of their five starters. Things could, perhaps, get better.
As they beat the Miami Marlins on Sunday, 8-2, to win their ninth series in 14 tries, to move 10 games over .500, to stay ahead by 1½ games in their division, some of those so-far sputtering cylinders fired. Max Scherzer threw eight impressive innings. Ben Revere and Anthony Rendon carried the offense.
Start with Scherzer, who looked like the mound-stomping, strike-pounding magician he has been more often than not during his Nationals tenure. He lost a no-hitter to the first batter of the game, Ichiro Suzuki, who finished the series with six hits in three games and 2,956 in his career. Scherzer did not threaten any strikeout records, but he dominated, and did so with few interruptions.
“I’m just kind of getting in midseason form,” Scherzer said. “That’s what you’re always striving for. You love to have it when you come out of spring, but sometimes it takes a few starts . . . every start I just keep getting a little sharper.”
Home runs have doomed the right-hander this season, blemishes in his better performances and catastrophes in his worst. Scherzer allowed one Sunday, a two-run shot to Justin Bour in the seventh, after which the Nationals still led by four.
Other than that pitch, however, Scherzer looked in rhythm, as he has in no-hitters and 20-strikeout performances, the fastball electric and the slider devastating, complemented by a diving change-up and occasional curveball, though he hardly needed that pitch at all. He allowed two earned runs on six hits, struck out eight and did not walk a batter.
“His location has settled in. That’s the whole thing. That was hurting him before,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said. “. . . Man, this was much needed on our part.”
By the time Bour homered in the seventh, Scherzer had plenty of cushion, in part because the Nationals’ leadoff man, Revere, seemed to get his powers back.
When the Nationals acquired Revere, they did so thinking he could help them create runs with his high contact rate and speed. But because of his injury on Opening Day and the early May slump that followed his return, Revere had not affected many games positively.
Last week, when his average was hovering around .100, he said he felt like a character from the movie “Space Jam,” in which NBA stars have their powers sapped by aliens. What more reasonable explanation could there be?
“We knew he was the same Ben we traded for, but when you get hurt in the first game of the season, you’re operating from behind,” said Baker, who considered starting Michael A. Taylor on Sunday against left-handed Marlins starter Adam Conley but chose Revere because of splits.
Revere started off Sunday’s game with a single up the middle. Then he stole second base, his first stolen base of the season. Jayson Werth grounded to the right side to move him to third. Bryce Harper hit a sacrifice fly to score him.
Then in the third inning, Revere pulled a bunt up the first base line. He moved to second on Werth’s tapper in front of the plate. He stole third. Daniel Murphy scored him with a base hit up the middle. Revere singled home two runs in the sixth, too, to finish the day 3 for 5.
“When [Revere] has success at the plate, then you start seeing him steal bags, being havoc on the base paths,” Scherzer said. “That just creates so much extra offense for us.”
Rendon, like Revere, has not yet been the hitter the Nationals hoped he would be this season. Baker dropped him from second to sixth in the order before last week’s series with the Mets in the hopes that change would inspire others.
Sunday, with two men on in that third inning, Rendon doubled to left to score Murphy. He walked to lead off the sixth inning and scored on Danny Espinosa’s single up the middle. He tripled home two runs in the ninth, his first triple since August 2014. Since the lineup change, Rendon is 10 for 20 and has raised his average from .227 to .259.
“I know he was kind of in the same bump as me a little bit,” Revere said. “. . . He’s one of those guys who can go 4 for 4 like that and do it again the next day.”
Whether Revere and Rendon’s successful Sundays spiral into consistency remains to be seen. But in part because of their efforts, the Nationals finished their six-game road trip 4-2 with one extra-base hit from Harper and three hits from Ryan Zimmerman, their lineup not nearly chugging along just yet. They will head home to play the New York Mets with a lead in the division — and still plenty of room for improvement.