When the Nationals and Baltimore Orioles met last, it was a dark time for the southern participants in the so-called Battle of the Beltways. Sure, they produced a record-breaking night at the plate in the first game of the series at Camden Yards but that was a momentary bright spot in an otherwise completely futile road trip that ended with a 1-7 record and a sweep by the Milwaukee Brewers.
So there the Nationals sat. They were 21-28, seven games under the .500 mark and nine games back of the National League East-leading Philadelphia Phillies. They weren’t hitting, their pitching looked to be cracking, they were weeks away from seeing the return of third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and they’d just put first baseman on the disabled list for what would eventually lead to season-ending shoulder surgery.
They set a goal: to get back to .500.
Things would get worse before they got better, dropping two of three to the San Diego Padres and three straight between the Padres and the Phillies at home. They’d find themselves 11 ½ games back by the time Memorial Day was over and nine games under .500, a valley they’d reach once more before this improbable winning streak began.
With a victory this afternoon, the Nationals will reach the .500 mark with a 36-36 record on June 19. It would be the latest in a season since 2005 – the first year baseball returned to D.C. – that they were .500 or better.
It’s a break-even point, but it’s a target that’s not lost on anyone in the Nationals’ clubhouse.
“It’s very significant,” Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said. “Three weeks ago we felt like, ‘We’re not going to catch the Phillies tomorrow, we’re not going to catch the Braves tomorrow. Let’s attack each game and set a goal that maybe we can attain. Let’s get to .500 and if we do that then we can set some more goals.”
“It’s steps,” Michael Morse. “That’s the first step, to get there and the next step is to move on from there so we’re just staying positive and keep pushing.”
The Nationals have reached a .500 record seven times already this season but the last time they were at that level was 35 games ago. Their winning streak, now at eight games, is tied for the second-longest in club history (since they moved to D.C.) but it’s the first one since 2005 that’s happened with a chance for it to be a springboard to bigger and better things. Quite frankly, it’s the first streak in a long time where the wins meant anything.
“It kind of shows how much we’ve grown up as a team,” said Ryan Zimmerman. “The last two years we’ve been really young. Playing in these games in the middle of the season when it means something takes a little bit more concentration, maybe a little more mental toughness. I think we’re finally getting to that hump. I don’t know if we’re over it yet. I think the second half of this year is going to be a big test for us. We know it’s not going to get any easier, but it’s a step in the right direction. We’ve just got to continue to do the things we’re doing.
“It’s just time. It’s hard to win at this level. When you have a young team like we’ve had the last couple years, you get exposed. You have to learn from your mistakes. By no means am I saying that we’re there yet. But we’ve definitely made some progress and we’ve definitely made less mistakes this year than we did last year, as far as continually making the same mistakes. I think it’s more a sense of our young guys growing up, and at the same time Mike (Rizzo) and the front office bringing in some guys like (Matt) Stairs and (Laynce) Nix and Jayson (Werth). It’s just a little more confidence. Having guys who have been through it before helps us a lot.”
One more win and they’ll have tied the Boston Red Sox – the second-best team in the major leagues (to the Phillies) – for the longest winning streak in MLB this season.