- The Washington Times - Monday, June 21, 2021

When the music started and the clapping of the arms soon followed and filled Nationals Park with a kind of chaotic, infectious energy, manager Dave Martinez looked at Josh Harrison, Josh Bell and the other newcomers on the team who hadn’t experienced such a scene before.

As Gerardo Parra walked to the plate as a Nationals player for the first time since Game 5 of the 2019 World Series, that’s when “Baby Shark” began playing from the speakers. And with a Mets mound visit, the song kept playing and playing — with the crowd continuing to clap their jaw-arms together.

“You should’ve saw their faces,” Martinez said. “They were laughing, they were excited about it.”

To Patrick Corbin, who had exited the game by that point, there was a distinct feeling of 2019 to it all, with the song blaring and the fans joining in — and winning the game, most of all. But then again, the past week and a half has reminded somewhat of 2019, with a slow start giving way to the beginnings of a midsummer surge.

Washington is still five games back of the New York Mets in the National League East, but the team suddenly showed signs of clicking. With eight wins in 11 games of a homestand, including taking three of four from the Mets, the Nationals have propelled themselves into the divisional mix again, with another key two-game series beginning Tuesday against the Philadelphia Phillies before visiting the Miami Marlins.

To go on that run, the team has needed a prolonged stretch of timely hitting and standout pitching — and perhaps a dose of “Baby Shark” — to meld together into eight wins in their last 10 games.

“The boys, they’re starting to play well, they’re starting to swing the bats well,” Martinez said. “We’re getting some consistency now and everything. It’s been a lot of fun. I mean, this week has been a lot of fun, so let’s keep it going.”

When the homestand began June 11 against the San Francisco Giants, Max Scherzer exited the game with groin inflammation after just 12 pitches. The Nationals went on to lose 1-0, with their hitting stuck in the mire they’ve often faced to begin the season.

That loss, and another the next day in a doubleheader, put Washington 8 1/2 games back of the division lead — the largest gap of the season so far. But in the past 10 games, the Nationals showed a different self. Walks had been a major issue for their pitching staff, but since June 12, their 5.3% walk rate is the lowest in the majors. They’ve allowed two runs or fewer in nine of the last 10 games, with an MLB-best 0.90 WHIP over that span.

And with Kyle Schwarber’s nine home runs over the homestand leading the way, the offense has shown just enough life to back up the strong pitching. Washington has hit .277 over that stretch of 10 games, the sixth-highest average in the majors, with an .814 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.

“Obviously, we wish we started the season a little better, but I think we’re in a good spot right now,” Corbin said. “Like I said, there’s a lot of games left, and I’m excited where we’re at. I think from top to bottom, we’re a strong team. And I think we’re only going to continue to get better.”

In 2019, the Nationals started the season 19-31 before going 74-38 the rest of the way, earning a Wild Card spot and winning the World Series. The 2021 version of the Nationals sat at 21-29 at the 50-game mark, and the team is still three games under .500 despite its recent surge.

Still, when Schwarber learned of the interest Washington had in him this summer, he jumped at the chance partly because he believed in the roster’s capabilities come October. The Nationals are a long way off from that, but the play the last week and a half breeds confidence.

“This is why I wanted to come here, because I knew that this was a great team, and I knew I just wanted to go out there and help them win ball games,” Schwarber said. “You see it on paper. It looks unbelievable. And you saw the highlights of it spring training. And now that things are starting to get mushed together and guys are going to start getting healthy, we’re going to see what we can keep doing.”

Baseball is a game of averages. The hot streak over the past 10 games could go cold and even out fairly quickly, and this could be a blip before a late-July trade deadline selloff for a team that proves out of contention. Or things could go another way. That’s part of the reason why Martinez laughed while sitting in the dugout Sunday, bemoaning the off day Monday — he didn’t want any interruption to the way his team was rolling.

But there’s a feeling in the air — and a sickeningly catchy tune in the eardrums — signaling that a turnaround is possible. Parra’s influence over Sunday’s proceedings, with his pinch-hit double and crowd-pumping walk-up song, are just one factor for a team hitting an upswing.

“Start believing in everybody right now,” Parra said, “because we have a great team. And we’re close.”

• Andy Kostka can be reached at akostka@washingtontimes.com.

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