A week ago, the Washington Nationals probably couldn’t wait for April to end. All of a sudden, they’d love to see it continue.
The Nationals, trying to get turned around after a woeful start, will look for their season-high fourth straight win on Thursday when they open a four-game set with the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are making their first trip to Washington’s new ballpark.
Things actually went well for the Nationals (11-17) right out of the gate in 2008 as they won their first three games, two to open the season in March and then another on April 2.
But Washington won only two of its next 17 games, falling to a major-league worst 5-15 with an offense than couldn’t score runs and a pitching staff that couldn’t get anyone out. Manager Manny Acta’s team was outscored 99-55 in those 17 games.
Just when it looked like the Nationals might not escape last place in the NL East this season, however, they’ve started to play better. Washington has won three in a row and six of its last eight.
Their third straight win came in dramatic - and bizarre - fashion on Wednesday, as Wil Nieve’s poorly placed bunt went through Atlanta pitcher Manny Acosta’s legs for an error in the 12th with Washington down 2-1. Acosta then walked in the tying run and Felipe Lopez’s hit gave Washington a 3-2 win.
“Destiny, baby! It was a mix-up with the signs,” Acta said. “He bunted the ball real bad, too. But the pitcher couldn’t field it.”
The most impressive part of Washington’s recent turnaround has been its pitching. After their 5-15 start, the Nationals had a 4.87 staff ERA and had given up 25 home runs. But in winning six of their last eight, they’ve posted a 3.12 ERA and yielded three homers.
Washington will give the ball to Odalis Perez (0-3, 3.31 ERA) on Thursday. Perez has looked good in his last three starts although he hasn’t picked up a win, working six innings each time while allowing just four earned runs total.
Yet as the Nationals’ pitching has improved, offensive issues remain in the nation’s capital. Washington has a .229 team batting average - 29th out of 30 teams - and has scored three or fewer runs 15 times.
Like Washington, the Pirates (11-16) had been having trouble at the plate recently, as they had averaged only 3.5 runs in their last 13 games, going 3-10.
Their bats broke out on Wednesday, however, when they beat the New York Mets 13-1, the most they’ve scored this season. Pittsburgh led 7-0 after two innings.
“It’s a lot nicer to play like that than the other way around,” said Nate McLouth, who had three hits and three RBIs.
McLouth, who had to win the Pirates’ center field job in spring training, was one of baseball’s most productive players in April. He’s hitting .342 with seven homers and 25 RBIs—McLouth is in the top 10 in the NL in each category— and he has four homers and nine RBIs in his last four games.
Zach Duke (0-2, 5.34) will be looking to rebound from a pair of rough starts for the Pirates. The left-hander has allowed 11 runs in 10 innings in his last two outings.
Duke is 0-1 with a 6.75 ERA in two career starts in Washington.
The Pirates went 4-2 against the Nationals last season.