- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 9, 2019

When the Nationals look back on their season — when they try to identify when it all began to turn — the natural tendency will be to pinpoint May 24, the day Washington rallied to take a 12-10 slugfest with the Miami Marlins.

Since that Friday night explosion, they’ve won 28 of their last 39 games for a league-leading winning percentage of .717.

But the seeds of their breathtaking turnaround — the Nationals are looking to become just the second team in the wild card era to start at least 19-31 and still make the playoffs — were planted earlier.

It just took some time — and some losses — for those early-season replantings to take root.

May 3: New pitching boss

On the first Friday in May, at Citizens Bank Park, there was a new pitching coach in the dugout for the Washington Nationals. Gone was Derek Lilliquist and in his place was Paul Menhart, who had been with the organization since 2006.

Lilliquist’s dismissal, at the time, was viewed as an oddity, given the way the team was coming off a 2-1 victory the night before to improve to 13-17. But larger issues remained. In addition to Washington’s bullpen having the worst ERA in the majors, general manager Mike Rizzo alluded to “preparation issues” plaguing the team’s pitching.

The Nationals, Rizzo said, felt Menhart would bring a different approach — a sentiment later echoed in the clubhouse.

“He cares about everyone and it really shows,” reliever Javy Guerra said. “The pitchers feed off that. He is really easy to talk to. He is pretty positive; at this level, it is all about confidence. He does a good job with the matchups (against hitters). He has been fun to work with.”

“There were a lot of people happy for him when he got the job,” reliever Matt Grace said.

Menhart’s impact might not have been immediately noticeable, but there’s something to be said about how consistent Washington’s starting rotation has been — especially during its surge. From May 24, the Nationals’ starters have a league-leading 3.12 ERA, pitching the third-most innings in that span.

Max Scherzer looks like a Cy Young candidate once again. Stephen Strasburg, much to the team’s delight, has stayed relatively healthy. Patrick Corbin has been everything the team had hoped for since signing a six-year, $140 million contract in the offseason, manager Dave Martinez said. Even Anibal Sanchez, the fourth starter, has performed at a high-level since overcoming a hamstring injury in late May.

As a rotation, Washington’s starters lead the league in strikeouts with 586.

“That’s why starting the season, people had us as favorites,” catcher Yan Gomes said. “Our pitching staff is going to lead us.”

Washington’s bullpen is still a concern.

The team has yet to find a reliable setup man in the seventh and the eighth, while the bullpen still has the 12th-worst ERA (4.94) since May 24.

But it helps that the Nationals’ starting rotation can go deep into games. As a result, the bullpen has only appeared in 2601/3 innings this season — 16 fewer than the next team, the Cleveland Indians.

May 9: Signing Gerardo Parra

Gerardo Parra zoomed into the media elevator after a game last week, wearing bright orange glasses and holding the electric scooter he uses to get himself to and from Nationals Park. As usual, he was smiling. Since arriving on May 9, Parra has been an emotional jolt for the Nationals. When the San Francisco Giants designated him for assignment after hitting just .198, the Nationals signed the 32-year-old veteran after he cleared waivers.

With the Nationals, Parra rarely plays, but his impact extends beyond the field. Players credit Parra for starting the team’s dancing parties in the dugout after the Nationals blast a home run.

“He’s brought that energy and flare,” closer Sean Doolittle said.

Dancing, on its own, doesn’t help a club win games. Doolittle, though, said the Nationals are now loose and confident — even when they’ve surrendered leads late. So far, the Nationals have 20 comeback victories this year. They also have five walk-off wins.

“We don’t quit,” Martinez said. “We don’t quit. Adversity builds character. Guys are playing with their heart.”

May 17: A healthy Trea Turner

Hours before the Nationals earned the first of their 28 upcoming victories, Rizzo stood near the home dugout and declared that it was too early to “pull the plug” on the season. His team was coming off a horrendous four-game sweep against New York Mets, but Rizzo didn’t commit to making drastic changes.

He wasn’t going to give up on Martinez, nor look to deal away the team’s best players months ahead of the league’s trade deadline.

“We’re a big-league club, we’ve got a talented big league roster, and we’ve got to play better baseball,” Rizzo said. “That’s it.”

Rizzo didn’t use it as an excuse, but back then, the Nationals were just getting healthy. The week before, shortstop Trea Turner was activated off the Injured List after he missed 38 games with a broken index finger. On May 11, Juan Soto returned from back spasms off the IL. And days before that, third baseman Anthony Rendon had finally been activated following a two-and-a-half week absence with an elbow contusion.

The Nationals have stayed relatively healthy since, and their offense has thrived. Washington has a home run in 21 straight games — a franchise record. And since May 24, the Nationals rank eighth in batting average (.259), fifth in on-base percentage (.344) and seventh in slugging percentage (.479).

Washington has also scored the ninth-most runs during its surge.

“Everybody all the way up and down the lineup they’ve been really contributing,” Doolittle said. “It’s a really cool feeling in the back half of games now. Feels like there is something that we’re just going to find a way. We’re just going to find a way to win. It’s been really fun.”

When Washington returns from the All-Star break on Friday, it will gear up for a rare playoff race.

Over the past seven seasons, the Nationals have won the NL East by an average of more than 12 games on four separate occasions, including 20 in 2017. But this year, the division is competitive — with the first-place Atlanta Braves (54-37) five games ahead of Washington. Division games will be especially important, starting with an upcoming three-game series against the Phillies (47-43).

The Nationals, though, appear eager for the challenge.

“A lot of exciting baseball games,” Strasburg said when asked what he expects of the second half. “We’re playing good baseball right now and we’re just going to continue to do that into the break. The second half begins, and then it gets interesting.”

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