Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper (R) of the National League hugs Nationals Manager David Martinez (4) after winning the 2018 Home Run Derby on July 16 at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo
MIAMI -- Suddenly, the Washington Nationals are hot.
The Nationals, who won the NL East the past two years by averaging 96 wins, started this Miami Marlins series under .500. But with two wins over the last-place Marlins (44-61), the Nationals are 52-51, looking like maybe they could make a run at the top two teams in the division, the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves.
Washington will start left-hander Gio Gonzalez (6-7, 3.94 ERA) on Saturday night against Miami rookie right-hander Trevor Richards (3-5, 4.41).
The Nationals woke up Friday seven games behind the Phillies for first place in the division.
But the Nationals aren't fazed by their position, and, in fact, they picked up a game by the end of Friday night.
"I don't think anyone thinks six or seven games is too much by any stretch of the imagination," Nationals shortstop Trea Turner told The Washington Post on Thursday night. "Yeah, it's getting late in the season, but 60 games to make up seven is very doable."
The Nationals are averaging 8.7 runs during this three-game win streak, including Friday's easy 9-1 win over the Marlins.
"We have to continue to do what we've been doing," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. "We're starting to swing the bats better."
The pitching was terrific on Friday as Max Scherzer struck out 11 and allowed just three hits and one walk.
"He was pretty good," Marlins manager Don Mattingly said.
The only run Scherzer allowed was unearned as third baseman Mark Reynolds -- filling in for Anthony Rendon, who is on paternity leave -- made two brutal defensive plays in one inning.
Reynolds made a double error on the first one -- a fielding miscue followed by a wild-high throw -- and then retreated on his next chance, turning a fieldable grounder into an RBI double.
Gonzalez, who is from Miami Dade County, will pitch against his hometown team on Saturday and is surely hoping for better defense from his teammates.
History is on Gonzalez's side as he has a 10-3 record and a 1.93 ERA in 17 career starts against the Marlins.
Gonzalez, whose 89 mph fastball is about three miles per hour slower than the league average, went 15-9 with a 2.96 ERA last year. But he has not had that type of success in 2018.
He went 0-3 with an 8.44 ERA in June and is 0-2 with a 4.98 ERA in July.
Perhaps being back in his hometown will be the key for Gonzalez to return to his form of April, when he went 3-2 with a 2.67 ERA or, better yet, how he pitched in May (3-0, 1.47 ERA).
Richards, on the other hand, is likely just thrilled to be in the majors. He pitched at an NCAA Division II school and made the big leagues despite being passed up in the draft.
That's 40 rounds and 1,200 players selected while Richards was ignored.
Richards, 25, has pitched well lately, however, with two quality starts in his past two appearances, allowing just one run in 12 2/3 innings.
Despite not having a blazing fastball, Richards struck out 10 Los Angeles Dodgers on April 25. His fastball averages 91 mph.
He will face a Nationals lineup that includes 19-year-old rookie Juan Soto, who has homered in three straight games.
As a team, the Nationals pounded out 16 hits on Friday, including three each by Daniel Murphy, Matt Adams and Soto.