Nationals manager Dave Martinez says he doesn’t look at the standings in the National League East.
“I worry about us,” Martinez said Thursday.
“Worry” was the operative word early on as his team was 19-31 after losing four straight at the Mets through May 23.
But with a 12-5 run over their last 17 games heading into Thursday night against Arizona, the Nationals are at least in the playoff discussion as the calendar nears summer and the team begins its longest, most important homestand to date.
“We can make some hay,” Nationals second baseman Brian Dozier said. “They are beat up right now, Philly is. We were beat up. Anything can flip really quick when you factor in injuries and hot streaks.”
After four weekend games with Arizona, the Nationals (31-36 through Wednesday) host NL East division foes Philadelphia (38-30) and first-place Atlanta (39-29). From May 15 through Wednesday, Washington led the majors in on-base percentage at .356, on the backs of hot-hitting Anthony Rendon and Howie Kendrick.
“I think every game is important,” Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki said. “These games (next week) get heightened attention when you play in the division. We feel like we have a talented roster. Obviously, it wasn’t the start we wanted.”
Nationals right-handed pitcher Tanner Rainey added that this homestand was vital “without a doubt.”
“We want to get back into contention,” Rainey said.
That would have sounded laughable over the first two months when Nationals’ bullpen was the worst in the majors during that stretch. But the bullpen had a 2.08 ERA from May 31 through Wednesday, which led the majors over that time.
Washington has gotten a boost from Rainey, who was called up on May 18 from Triple-A Fresno. In his first 11 games out of the bullpen, he has a 1.64 ERA and a 0.91 WHIP.
Rainey, 26, was acquired before this season from the Cincinnati Reds for veteran pitcher Tanner Roark, a key to the Washington rotation for the past several years.
The eighth inning was a dark hole for the Washington staff in the first two months, without a reliable reliever to bridge the gap between the starters and closer Sean Doolittle. But Rainey has helped turn the eighth inning from a horror show to a lockdown frame.
“I love his velo,” Dozier said of Rainey’s fastball. “He has a sharp slider. It is great to have a couple of guys in the pen who can get close to 100. I think he has gotten a little more confident, which is a really good thing. He can be one of the go-to guys.”
Suzuki said Rainey “has definitely been a great addition to our bullpen.
Washington entered Thursday with a 4.65 team ERA, which ranked 13th out of 15 teams in the National League.
Forecasting tools are looking more kindly upon the Nationals thanks to the 12-5 run, too. According to fangraphs.com, Washington had a 38.8 % chance to make the playoffs entering Thursday and a 17.4 shot of winning the NL East.
The site fivethirtyeight.com gave the Nationals a 23% chance of making the playoffs and 11% to win the NL East before Thursday’s games.
Washington ace Max Scherzer (4-5, 2.83) will face former Nationals minor leaguer Robbie Ray (5-3, 3.54) Friday. Scherzer is 6-0 in his career against Arizona, which is the team that drafted him. Meanwhile, Ray is 0-4 in his career against Washington.
Stephen Strasburg (7-3, 3.36) is slated to start for the Nationals on Saturday against Arizona’s Taylor Clarke (1-2, 5.26), an Ashburn, Virginia native.
After Arizona, the Phillies and Braves loom as even more important opponents, but the Nationals are staying cool.
“We are playing good baseball right now, no matter who the opponent is,” Dozier said.