The Nationals’ two 2015 seasons

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — On April 27, the Nationals played their 20th game of the season and suffered an 8-4 loss to the Braves in Atlanta, falling to 7-13, eight games behind the Mets in the National League East.

On Tuesday night, the Nationals played their 40th game of the season and rallied for an 8-6 win over the Yankees in Washington. Ryan Zimmerman’s two-run walk-off homer in the 10th inning against Andrew Miller and his 0.00 ERA lifted the Nats to 23-17 and into a first-place tie with the Mets atop the division.

Entering Wednesday’s game against New York, the Nats have played two 20-game stretches that could not be much more different. The change began on April 28 in Atlanta, when Washington fell behind by eight runs after four innings but roared back to claim a 13-12 victory on Dan Uggla’s go-ahead three-run homer in the ninth.

“This definitely is the type of game that can change the spirits of a ballclub,” center fielder Denard Span said afterward. “I’m not saying it will. But we definitely needed something like tonight.”

The idea of momentum in baseball often is wildly overstated, but there’s no doubt something turned around that day, even if it was nothing more than a good team finding its level. Since then, the Nats are 16-4, tied for the best 20-game stretch in team history. So what’s been the difference?

It hasn’t been pitching:

First 20 games: 3.64 ERA, 11 HR, 2.6 BB per game, 7.5 K per game

Last 20 games: 3.94 ERA, 14 HR, 2.4 BB per game, 8.2 K per game

In fact, the club’s starting pitchers posted a 4.33 ERA over that second stretch, compared with 3.78 in the first, with five outings of five earned runs or more.

However, some better defense has dropped the number of unearned runs scored against the Nats from an unwieldy 18 to eight.

Still, the biggest difference between the first and second versions of the Nats has been the way the club has swung the bats.

First 20 games: 3.5 runs per game, .215/.289/.346 (AVG/OBP/SLG), 16 HR

Last 20 games: 6.7 runs per game, .307/.369/.494, 29 HR

The most impressive thing about the improvement is that it’s been a total team effort. Yes, Bryce Harper has embarked on one of the best offensive stretches in baseball history, but every Nats regular has raised his game, at least a bit.

BRYCE HARPER

First 20 games: .262/.424/.508

Last 20 games: .403/.522/.944

DENARD SPAN

First 20 games: .207/.250/.207 (7 games)

Last 20 games: .377/.421/.638

DANNY ESPINOSA

First 20 games: .205/.340/.436

Last 20 games: .303/.387/.500

WILSON RAMOS

First 20 games: .250/.258/.328

Last 20 games: .379/.413/.500

YUNEL ESCOBAR

First 20 games: .284/.351/.418

Last 20 games: .378/.420/.392

RYAN ZIMMERMAN

First 20 games: .205/.279/.385

Last 20 games: .280/.310/.453

JAYSON WERTH

First 20 games: .156/.250/.200 (12 games)

Last 20 games: .250/.328/.357 (placed on DL Tuesday)

IAN DESMOND

First 20 games: .238/.297/.357

Last 20 games: .250/.296/.382

Even a couple of members of the bench have made huge contributions over the last 20 games. Backup catcher Jose Lobaton is 6-for-17 with two homers, five RBIs, four walks and a 1.182 OPS. And Uggla, whose homer against his former team ignited this surge, is 7-for-20 with a double, a triple, a homer, nine RBIs, four walks and a 1.108 OPS.

So which Nats team will show up for the next 20 games? Logic states the offense, and the club in general, will find a middle ground. But we’ll soon find out, starting Wednesday night.

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

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