- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 19, 2016

NEW YORK — The Washington Nationals’ start is either the best in team history or one measly game in front of last year.

Both are true. The Nationals reached the quarter pole of the season at 24-16, their best record to this point since the team returned in 2005 and good for first place in the National League East. Last year, with all the injuries, the bad start for Stephen Strasburg and since-fired Matt Williams in charge, the Nationals were 23-17.

Health has not been the issue this season. Hitting has.

The Nationals are a mediocre ninth in the National League in on-base percentage. They have the fifth-most strikeouts in the NL. They are 10th in average, though they have homered enough to be fourth in the league. That total has been boosted by an unlikely six pinch-hit home runs. Without those, the Nationals would be eighth.

The back end of the rotation has been the revelation. Gio Gonzalez (1.86) and Joe Ross (2.63) are both in the top 10 of the NL in ERA. Gonzalez is fourth a season after finishing 23rd. Tanner Roark is at a more-than-reasonable 3.10. Strasburg looks himself. Max Scherzer is sorting it out. Things are a bit upside down in the rotation, but working. Only the Chicago Cubs have a better team ERA.

“It starts with pitching,” Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. “As long as you’ve got good pitching, you’ve got action.”

To open the three-game series against the New York Mets, Baker continued his recent tinkering with the lineup. Last week, he moved Daniel Murphy to hit fourth behind Bryce Harper, dropping Ryan Zimmerman a spot in the order. In New York, he has swapped Jayson Werth and Anthony Rendon. Werth has been moved up to hit second. Rendon is hitting sixth.

For a night, it worked. Rendon’s single in the fifth inning on Wednesday drove in two runs. That’s more than he drove in during 91 at-bats in April. Werth reached base five times by walking three and picking up two hits. He scored three runs. Bryce Harper walked four times behind Werth. The Nationals finally piled some baserunners other than Harper in front of Murphy, who was just 1-for-4 but also had two loud outs, one a line drive to left-center field, the other a 400-foot flyout to dead center that Juan Lagares caught over his shoulder.

“I hope this helps Jayson and helps us,” Baker said. “Also, I hope it helps Rendon to be in the situation to drive in runs because that’s a very, very important part of the lineup — that sixth and seventh. You’re going to have a whole bunch of RBI situations and mainly a whole bunch of two-out RBI situations.”

The afternoon before the next chunk of the season began — the all-star break is 50 games away — some sunshine finally showed up in New York. For Baker, it’s almost always sunny.

“We know we’re good and we know we’re better,” Baker said.

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