On May 23, the Washington Nationals hit rock bottom. They were swept in four games by the Mets and sat at 19-31 on the season. They were on pace to go 62-100 and were tied with the Marlins for the most losses in the NL. The only teams in baseball with a worse record were the Marlins, Royals and Orioles. That was it. This was a team that signed Patrick Corbin, Brian Dozier, Kurt Suzuki and Anibal Sanchez in the offseason while also trading for Yan Gomes.
This was the total opposite of a rebuilding situation and only rebuilding teams were worse, and there were actually several rebuilding teams that were better. Surely manager Dave Martinez and maybe even general manager Mike Rizzo were feeling the heat.
Since then, the Nationals have made one of the most remarkable first-half turnarounds we've ever seen.
After winning on Thursday, the Nationals evened things up at 40-40. The Nats PR department released the following information:
This was the seventh time in history an NL team fell at least 12 games below .500 and then got back to .500 before July. It happened with the 1900 Boston Beaneaters, 1965 Pirates, 1969 Astros, 1972 and 1973 Cardinals and then the 2009 Rockies.
And now, with yet another win, they are above water at 41-40 with exactly half the schedule remaining.
Thanks to the Braves being on such a heater, the Nats haven't made up a ton of ground in the NL East, but they are right on the cusp of holding one of the wild card spots. They are absolutely a contender. As such, we can hold off on the Anthony Rendon and/or Sean Doolittle trade rumors.
What has changed?
Well, part of the issue was many of the good players in that clubhouse just needed to play better and that's started to happen. Juan Soto has been on fire, Trea Turner (who was hurt early in the season) has been really good and Brian Dozier's slugging came back. Along the way, Anthony Rendon has just been himself (which is one of the most underrated stars in baseball) while Howie Kendrick and Kurt Suzuki have been unbelievable. As a whole, the offense has been pretty great during the stretch, particularly with timely hitting (the RISP average, for example).
Some of the change has come in the bullpen, though it's still not great.
Through May 23, the Nationals' relievers were last in the majors with a combined 7.02 ERA. They had 10 blown saves and 12 bullpen losses (out of 50 games!). Entering Friday, the Nats' bullpen had posted a 4.52 ERA and 1.26 WHIP. That they are winning so much just goes to show how all they really needed early in the season was for the 'pen to stop melting down.
Wander Suero has a rough season-long line, but he's strung together six straight scoreless outings in relief (6 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 9 K) and is a fine setup option for stud closer Sean Doolittle. Javy Guerra was acquired from the Blue Jays in the middle of May and he had been excellent until a bad outing on Wednesday. He turned in a scoreless inning Friday. Tanner Rainey has had some good outings. Fernando Rodney was picked up earlier this month and has worked two scoreless innings, so maybe he'll stick (he does this after going to a new team on occasion).
Things still need to get more settled, but the Nationals have the talent on offense and in the rotation to hang around in contention while that happens.
As things stand, they have gone 22-9 since they hit rock bottom. The only team better than that in the stretch has been the Dodgers, who are arguably the best team in baseball. And now the Nationals are a game over .500 just over a month since being 12 under and have a real shot at getting back to the playoffs. Maybe Dave Martinez goes from the cusp of being fired to winning NL Manager of the Year? It could happen. That's just how much a marathon baseball is and how well the Nationals have played for the last month-plus.