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Nationals dance their way from rock bottom to playoff race

July 10, 2019
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Washington Nationals' Brian Dozier (9) celebrates his home run in the dugout with his teammates during the second inning of a baseball game against the Kansas City Royals, Sunday, July 7, 2019, in Washington. The Nationals won 5-2. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Seven weeks ago, the Washington Nationals didn’t have much to dance about.

They were 12 games below .500 with the fourth-worst record in baseball. They weren’t giving ace Max Scherzer and Co. enough run support, and the bullpen was a ticking time bomb to another deflating loss.

“Any way we could lose a game, we found a way to do it,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “Then you go to New York and get swept, lose four games in a row, you feel like you’re at rock bottom.”

Since waking up at rock bottom on May 24, the Nationals have gone a major league-best 28-11 to vault into playoff contention. With its combination of power hitting, stellar starting pitching and some dance parties in the dugout, Washington can legitimately think about playing into October and challenging the Atlanta Braves for NL East supremacy.

“We know the guys in this clubhouse are very talented,” Scherzer said. “When we can go out there and play our best baseball and play mistake-free baseball, we’re a tough team and we can compete with anybody in this league.”

Scherzer and fellow starters Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin are at the center of this renaissance. They are the only three teammates in NL history to each post 125 strikeouts before the All-Star break, and Scherzer is 7-0 with a 0.48 ERA in his past nine starts dating to mid-May.

No. 4 starter Anibal Sanchez is 5-0 with a 2.18 ERA since returning from the injured list, and the rotation has been good enough to limit the innings a shaky bullpen needs to throw.

“When you can ask your starting pitching to give you seven innings every outing, that’s incredible,” manager Dave Martinez said. “They’ve done it all year. You’re just seeing the benefits now because the whole team’s playing really well. It’s been incredible.”

Even more incredible is the Nationals’ home run hitting. They have gone yard in 21 consecutive games, the longest streak in franchise history and the longest active in the majors.

Each time a player hits a home run, it’s all eyes on the dugout since midseason signing Gerardo Parra started a tradition of dances to celebrate the occasion. Last weekend, catcher Kurt Suzuki flossed and All-Star Anthony Rendon did a little jig with Parra before hugging him.

“I’m happy every day,” Parra said. “The people right now just enjoy the moment.”

It was difficult to enjoy too many moments in May, when Washington seemingly couldn’t do anything right. After missing the playoffs last season, it looked like another long slog until Game 162.

Martinez harped on the message of winning the next game rather than worrying about the hole his team needed to dig out of. Winning three of four against the bottom-feeding Miami Marlins and sweeping a two-game series at Atlanta began the turnaround.

“Everybody had a hand in why we were making mistakes and not playing winning baseball,” Scherzer said. “We started playing better baseball, really cleaned up our act all the way around. Once we started clicking and started getting going, we eliminated a lot of the mistakes and errors and just made the other team beat us.”

The Nationals hold an NL wild-card spot coming out of the All-Star break but are still six games back of first-place Atlanta. Seven of their next nine games are against the Braves or old friend Bryce Harper and the Philadelphia Phillies, but players believe the adversity they faced early on can only help them now.

“I love how we overcame a lot of things the first month and a half. ... We knew things had to turn and we made it happen,” second baseman Brian Dozier said. “It’s still going to be a test, but at the same time we’re playing really good baseball. I think the confidence and everything is back where it needs to be and everything’s rolling pretty good.”

With this success, don’t expect the Nationals’ dance party to stop. Even though he won’t get involved because “I don’t hit home runs,” Martinez doesn’t mind his players having a little fun in the confines of their dugout because it’s not designed to show up any opponents.

If anything, it’s a sign of a team that didn’t let a lot of losing tear it apart and believes it has the rhythm to keep this winning roll going.

“One thing I know about this team is that they’ve stuck together through the bad times, even now through the good times,” Martinez said. “They’ve been the same group since day one. The chemistry’s always been there. Now all of a sudden, we’re starting to play well and you can see them — they’re having fun. They really enjoy what they’re doing and they’re out there having fun.”

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AP Sports Writer Dave Ginsburg and freelance writer Patrick Stevens contributed to this report.

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