- - Wednesday, May 9, 2018

On April 24, the Washington Nationals had a record of 10-14, the worst mark for the club in several years.

The Nationals lost that day 4-3 in San Francisco, giving them six straight losses by one run as they fell 6.5 games back of the first-place New York Mets.

But the next day, Washington crushed the Giants 15-2 to post a win behind ace Max Scherzer, who has won four times after a Nationals loss already this year.

The Nationals were 20-17 overall after Tuesday’s 4-0 win in San Diego, leaving them just 11/2 games back of the first-place Atlanta Braves. It was the ninth win in 10 games for the surging club.

Washington will play its 40th game of the season Friday in Arizona with Scherzer on the mound, putting them nearly at the quarter- pole of regular-season play.

Here is a look at how the Nationals saved their season:

Martinez’s leadership

First-year manager Dave Martinez kept a brave face, even after a pair of one-run losses at home to first-place Arizona in late April.

He created a fun atmosphere in spring training, complete with camels and golf target practice, but he has also been stern as well once the season started.

Martinez didn’t waver in his confidence in everyday regular players, even when they started off the year slowly. He didn’t panic early on.

Harper as leadoff hitter

On May 1, Martinez decided to have Bryce Harper bat leadoff since he was not getting enough pitches to hit in the No. 3 spot.

The Nationals won seven of their next eight games and Harper hit four home runs in that stretch.

As the same time, Matt Adams hit third in the order several times, and that coincided with a hot stretch as he hit seven homers in eight games through Tuesday. The Nationals were 4-0 in games in which Adams hit in the No. 3 hole.

It is very doubtful that Matt Williams and Dusty Baker, the two managers before Martinez in the District, would’ve tried something as drastic as moving Harper to the leadoff spot.

The starting pitchers

Perhaps no team in the majors can send to the mound a more solid group of five starting pitchers.

The Nationals have a pair of aces in Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, and Tanner Roark and Gio Gonzalez are solid middle-of-the-rotation pitchers.

The addition of Jeremy Hellickson as the No. 5 starter is a clear upgrade over A.J. Cole, who was picked up the New York Yankees. That became evident Tuesday night in San Diego, as Hellickson retired the first 18 batters before he saw his perfect game and no-hitter broken up in the seventh inning of his first win.

“Wins really don’t matter, but they’re nice when you throw well,” Hellickson told reporters.

Washington’s starters had an ERA of 3.21 in games through Tuesday, the best mark in the National League. The starters also led the league in wins with 17 and WHIP at 1.08.

That has helped hide the bullpen, which posted had a league-low three wins before Wednesday and was 12th in the league with an ERA of 4.67.

The Nationals‘ bullpen had thrown 108 innings before Wednesday’s game in San Diego. That is the lowest in the league — meaning Martinez knows where his strengths are in the pitching department.

The shutout Tuesday was the third of the year for Washington and first since April 9.

A new approach on offense

It wasn’t too long ago that the Nationals relied too much on the home run to score.

That is not the case now, as the club has ranked first in walks and steals in the first month of the season in the league.

Martinez won’t hesitate to start his runners off first base, be it Harper or anyone else in addition to speedy shortstop Trea Turner or center fielder Michael A. Taylor.

He even had slow-footed catcher Matt Wieters running with no outs and a full count on Taylor early in Monday’s game in San Diego.

Solid defense

The defense of the Nationals has been underrated. Washington entered Wednesday with a fielding percentage of .989, tied for second in the league.

The Nationals catchers (and pitchers) had thrown out 14 would-be base stealers, tied for first in the National League.

“Our pitchers have taken to the idea that 90 feet is a big deal. Don’t give them (steals) up if you don’t have to,” catcher Wieters told Mid-Atlantic Sports Network.

The National League East

The division isn’t as bad as many people thought it would be.

But while the Braves, Mets and Phillies were beating up on each other, the Nationals were able to gain ground on all three teams during a recent hot stretch.

The Mets may offer the best chance to beat the Nationals, especially if their young pitchers stay healthy. But that is a big if.

The Braves, with a core of great young everyday players, may be a force a year before even they expected.

While the Nationals have been hit by injuries to everyday players such as left fielder Adam Eaton, second baseman Daniel Murphy and first baseman Ryan Zimmerman (who returned to the lineup Tuesday), so have their east foes.

Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom went on the disabled list earlier this week with a hyperextended elbow.

And the Nationals gained seven games on the Mets in about two weeks — and may have saved their season.

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