The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Nationals are MLB’s hottest team. What happens when the ‘good’ players return?

Nationals first baseman Mark Reynolds high-fives catcher Pedro Severino after scoring in the second inning Tuesday in Baltimore. (Evan Habeeb/USA Today Sports)

Whatever the Washington Nationals accomplish or fail to achieve this season, please appreciate how remarkable they have been in their first third of a season under rookie Manager Dave Martinez.

With scrap metal and bubble gum holding them together, with unsung and in some cases unknown heroes, with castoffs and a teenager, with Syracuse SkyChiefs T-shirts and we-can-cope spirit, they have bonded with Martinez and built the beginnings of a team identity that may drive them long after all their injured stars have returned. Which, by the way, will be in about the next five minutes.

The Nats left Baltimore on Wednesday as MLB’s hottest team (21-6 in their past 27 games), on a 96-win pace at 32-22 and in first place in the National League East — just as predicted before the season — before falling a half-game back with Thursday night’s 4-2 loss at the Atlanta Braves.

And that’s amazing because nobody thought the Nats would have 11 players on the disabled list now or that they could thrive with 10 men in their dugout who weren’t in the big leagues on Opening Day. Yet the Nats just swept the bad Marlins and O’s on the road, as if they were a healthy horde of village pillagers.

If the Nats had sulked about not having Daniel Murphy, Adam Eaton, Howie Kendrick, Ryan Zimmerman, Matt Wieters and Ryan Madson while building their current hot streak with Juan Soto, Mark Reynolds, Jeremy Hellickson, Adrian Sanchez, Trevor Gott, Andrew Stevenson, Wander Suero, Tim Collins, Justin Miller and Spencer Kieboom, Washington could be one of MLB’s coldest teams.

The Nats have been routinely exceptional in the regular season — winning the most games in the majors in the past seven years — but they probably have never played so well while overcoming so much. That’s how tough, resilient teams are often created.

“Every man is stepping up. And we all pull on the same rope,” said Bryce Harper, who’s having an excellent season, on pace for 53 homers and 118 RBI.

From Wednesday: Max Scherzer stifles Orioles as Nats’ sixth straight win lands them in first

You read that right: an excellent season. If Harper had had his normal, career-level luck on batting average on balls in play, he would be hitting .304, not .234. MVP and $350 million-deal talk would abound. “I feel great,” Harper said. Just wait.

“A lot of guys are getting opportunities. That’s how you find new [standouts] like, obviously, Soto,” said Max Scherzer, who, at 9-1 with a 1.92 ERA and 120 strikeouts in 12 starts, is on pace for Officially Ridiculous. He will cool off — some.

But if this turns out to be Mad Max’s peak season, then he’s the perfect linchpin for a deep October run. On Wednesday, while fanning 12 Orioles in eight scoreless innings, Scherzer said his mechanics — and hence his fastball velocity and command — were the best they had been all year.

The Nats’ next challenge is four games in Atlanta against the rising young Braves, who claimed the opener Thursday night. The new kids on the NL East block, who took over first place in the division by a half-game, better take their shots at the Nats while they can because starting now and then pouring through the Washington clubhouse doors over the next two weeks will be what the Nats call their “all-star team on the disabled list.”

Will the “real” Nats, as they reassemble, be better than the makeshift “SkyChiefs”? That’s actually a fairly high bar to clear because so many unlikely Nats have contributed so much more than expected.

Matt Adams is hitting a home run every 11.1 at-bats — an average slightly better than Babe Ruth’s — and is on pace for 35 homers and 94 RBI. The castoff Reynolds has six homers in 44 at-bats — the same as Ruth’s older and better big brother.

And Hellickson, whom the Nats grabbed off the thanks-for-the-memories scrap heap? A 2.30 ERA in eight starts. It’s too soon to endorse the career resurrection of 5-foot-7 lefty Tim Collins or conclude that hard-throwing Justin Miller, who’s about to turn 31, has “found it.” But in eight 0.00 ERA appearances, they look like middle-inning upgrades.

Fancy Stats: Move aside, Clayton Kershaw. Max Scherzer is the best pitcher in baseball.

And then there is the 19-year-old Soto, who hit .362 as he flew through three levels of the minors and merely has a .915 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in his first 11 Nats games.

“I don’t even know if [Soto] knows he’s in the big leagues,” Scherzer said. “He’s hit two change-ups into the opposite field gap. Plenty of veterans can’t do that. If you have that ability to compete at this level, then you just have it.”

After noting that Soto will be tested by every trick in the arsenal of big league pitchers, Scherzer added, “But for this young in his career — so impressive.” Asked whether Soto seemed to need more time in the minors, Scherzer said, “He’s here.”

Soto exemplifies the Nats’ “problem” of the next month. The varsity is coming back — in waves. Where do you put ’em all?

On Thursday, Madson returned. Murphy, who had six RBI in a rehab game, is slated to be back by next week. Eaton is hoping to come off the DL on June 8 “with no limitations,” including time in center field. Brian Goodwin homered on his rehab. Zimmerman and reliever Matt Grace are due back soon, too.

Can Martinez get his Nats declared an honorary AL team with a DH so he will have an extra lineup spot? “I wish,” he said. “But that ain’t the case.”

Murphy, Madson, Eaton and Zimmerman simply should assume their previous roles. Zimmerman, too? Yes, of course. He hit .303 with 36 homers and 108 RBI last year and is on the books for $18 million next season. It’s a central team-building issue to get value from investments if the value is still there. It will be a long time before the Nats reach a point of serious doubt about Zimmerman.

The Braves are way ahead of schedule, but they’re here now, and they’re scary

Reynolds, a close friend of Zimmerman’s since they were kids in Virginia Beach, and teammates at Virginia, too, knows Zimmerman’s job is not on the table.

“I’m not so shortsighted that I don’t know what’s going on,” Reynolds told me this week. “I’m playing for this team now. But I’m playing for a lot of teams.”

The Nats only have one major dicey decision. Should Soto, assuming he continues to look comfortable in the majors, keep a starting outfield job, either in left field or even center, with Michael A. Taylor, who is hitting .204, going to the bench?

Yes.

See, that was easy, wasn’t it?

Taylor has been a pro for nine years. Everybody roots for him. But you get just so many chances to lock down a job. With Eaton, Soto and (the injured) Victor Robles having written their Nats future in ink — and perhaps Harper, too — the long term is clear. So get on with it, if Soto can handle it. If he can’t, call Taylor.

The Nats consider Eaton viable in center field, and perhaps Soto is, too. The flexibility, left-right balance, speed and thump of a lineup of Eaton, Turner, Harper, Rendon, Murphy, Zimmerman/Adams, Soto and, when he returns, the switch-hitting Wieters, plus Pedro Severino, makes my head hurt. In a good way.

The next couple of weeks, as rusty vets return, could be bumpy, especially with the Braves, Yankees and Phillies on tap. But by the time summer officially arrives, the Nationals should be more than ready to make the most of it.

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