The Washington Times - August 15, 2013, 12:22AM

A week ago Wednesday night, the Washington Nationals trudged off their home field and pondered where their season was headed. Swept by the Atlanta Braves, they hung precariously in limbo between a place of possible contention and possible irrelevance. They wanted none of the latter, but were on the outskirts of the former. 

Seven days later, the Nationals have pushed that series into the background of what might be the rebirth of their season.

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The Nationals have not lost since the Braves’ buses rolled out of Washington last week. Wednesday night, with a thrilling 6-5 victory over the San Francisco Giants, they ran their winning streak to five, which tied their season-long run.

A win on Thursday would give them a second consecutive series sweep, and the Nationals would climb back to the .500 mark for the first time since July 19 — the first day after the All-Star break. 

The Nationals have underachieved for most of a 2013 season that was supposed to serve as a rollicking encore to their 2012 coming-out party. They hovered around mediocrity for most of the first half and, when it seemed as though they had no choice but to surge coming out of the break, they went the opposite way. 

So maybe the last few games the Nationals are just playing more like the team they are, as opposed to the team they’ve been masquerading as for most of the season. 

“We’re just playing better,” said manager Davey Johnson. “Water seeks its level, and sooner or later everybody was going to start getting hits with runners in scoring position. We’ve got too good of talent.”

But perhaps there is another reason.

Perhaps there is simply the idea that all of the pressure the Nationals felt this season — self-imposed or otherwise — from the vast expectations laid on their collective backs from the outset was dissipated by that series weep at the hands of the Braves.

Perhaps they realized their hole was so deep it was unlikely they’d climb out of it. So, why not just forget the rest and just play?

“Maybe,” said right fielder Jayson Werth. “That’s one way to look at it. Maybe. I don’t know. You come in here every day with the same mentality. You’ve done this so many times. It’s not like your mindset changed a whole lot from one day to the next.

“(But) maybe there is something to that. Maybe we just said, ‘Screw it.’ We just got our (butts) kicked. What do we got to lose? It was definitely a flip that was switched. Hopefully it was the right one.”

A relaxed atmosphere has been obvious since the Nationals returned from an off-day that followed that Braves series. Johnson, many times seeming down and admitting he was without answers, came back with some fire when the Nationals opened their series against the Phillies last weekend. They played, it seemed, with a renewed outlook.

“This game, it kind of beats you down so bad at times,” said right-hander Tyler Clippard. “I feel like we hit rock bottom and we’re like, ‘Alright, let’s just go out there and play and not worry about what’s going on and who is winning what games and focus on ourselves.’

“Unfortunately we did lose three to the Braves but it let us take a step back and be like, ‘Alright guys, let’s just play baseball and see what happens.’ And that’s what we’re doing right now and it’s a lot more fun that way these last five games. A lot more relaxed and just focusing on what we’re doing. And that’s what we how we have to do it.”

The Nationals’ winning streak shouldn’t be belittled. After a certain point in the season, with a large enough body of work to make an evaluation, teams are what their record says. And the Nationals enter Thursday’s game as a team still one game below .500. 

Their five most recent wins have come against woebegone clubs in Philadelphia and San Francisco, who came to D.C. each in more dire and depressing straits than the last. 

But the wins all look the same in the box score. And for a Nationals team that has not won more than five consecutive games all season, they’ll take them however they can get them, against whomever they can get them. 

“It doesn’t really matter what it looks like,” said shortstop Ian Desmond. “We won. That’s good enough for me.”

In their five-game streak, the Nationals have averaged 6.6 runs per game, and they’ve allowed only 2.8. The formula for winning can often be as simple as that.

“We’re still playing the same game,” Desmond said. “I’ve said it before: we’ve just got to keep on playing clean baseball. We’ve just got to keep playing the game hard, the way we know how, and the rest of that stuff will take care of itself. All we can do is swing and play defense and pitch.”

And sometimes, a team’s mentality can affect them more than they let on.

“We just turned the page,” said Denard Span. “The (Braves) came in here and gave us a good old fashioned beating, beat us in small-ball, every facet of the game. They did. (But) we just turned the page. Philadelphia came in and we went to business and now we’ve won five in a row.

“Just need to keep going, keep pushing forward and keep grinding.”