Nationals playing with a purpose after four-game sweep

WASHINGTON -- The calendar said spring, but the temperature said summer. As for the game, that felt like fall.

Even though it was an early May contest against a non-divisional opponent in the Pittsburgh Pirates, Washington Nationals manager Davey Martinez pulled strings as if it were the middle of October. With a chance to complete a rare four-game sweep and climb back to .500, the Nationals skipper pulled out all the stops.

Actually, it was more like two stops.

With two out in the top of the sixth inning of a scoreless tie Thursday, Martinez yanked starter Jeremy Hellickson despite the fact that the veteran righty had been on cruise control. Until that point, Hellickson had allowed just three hits. He hadn’t walked anyone. He’d thrown only 61 pitches and had retired the first two batters of the frame. Although the move wasn’t completely without cause -- so far this season, opposing hitters have posted a 1.911 OPS against Hellickson the third time through the order -- it had a decidedly fall feel to it.

The other Octoberish occurrence happened in the eighth inning, when Martinez summoned closer Sean Doolittle with one out and the bases loaded and the Nats nursing a 3-0 lead. A converted first baseman who’s endured his fair share of arm issues since moving to the bullpen in 2012, Doolittle was so unaccustomed to multi-inning outings that after wriggling out of the jam with minimal damage -- he allowed a run-scoring fielder’s choice that should’ve been a double play, then got Starling Marte to fly out -- he didn’t know how to behave.

“I really didn’t know what to do,” said Doolittle, who decided to throw on his jacket even though it was nearly 90 degrees in the nation’s capital.

He contemplated going to the clubhouse, but was warned not to by fellow reliever Brandon Kintzler, who implored his teammate to keep moving and stay loose. So that’s what Doolittle did. Apparently, it worked, as he went back out for the ninth and retired the side in order for an uncommon five-out save.

“I don’t think I’ve done that for a while,” said Doolittle, whose last save of five outs or more came in September 2015. That wasn’t the only thing that hadn’t happened in a while.

With the 3-1 victory over Pittsburgh, the Nationals completed their first four-game sweep since July of last season. It was also the first time the defending National League East champs have won a series -- any series -- since the middle of last month. Perhaps most important, the W brings Washington’s record to an even 16-16, the first time in two weeks the Nats have managed to get back to .500.

“Obviously not the best April,” said first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, whose team has struggled to score runs while key cogs Adam Eaton (ankle), Daniel Murphy (knee) and Anthony Rendon (toe) have spent time on the disabled list. “Now it’s starting to turn a little bit. Now some balls are starting to fall. We’re starting to get some big hits when we need to.”

On Thursday, the biggest hits came from Zimmerman and shortstop Trea Turner, both of whom homered during a three-run sixth inning to help give Pittsburgh the broom treatment. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the Nats exploded for a combined 21 runs on 24 hits. For the series, they outscored the Pirates 27-10, no small feat considering that Pittsburgh came to town in possession of first place in the NL Central.

The offensive outburst just so happened to coincide with the relocation of slugger Bryce Harper, who had been slumping mightily, to the leadoff spot. Despite going 0-for-4 in the finale, Harper responded positively to the move by homering in each of his first two games atop the order. He’s not the only one who seems rejuvenated by the lineup shake-up.

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“[Matt] Adams would be up there, Howie [Kendrick] would be up there,” Doolittle said after the game, rattling off the list of guys who have been swinging hot sticks and have helped Washington’s season-high win streak reach five games. “The starting pitching continuing to do what they've done all year long. Even when we were losing, we were in every one of those games because of how the starters were pitching. I'm going to leave guys out, I know it. Zim, finally getting that big one today, that was huge for him. He's been having really good at-bats and just hitting balls right at people. So that was awesome to see. Of course, Bryce. You guys talk about him enough. Our catchers. They've been good. If the starting pitching is good, I think the catching is good. We've gotten contributions from a lot of guys.”

The always-witty Doolittle, realizing that he’d started to ramble, joked that he felt like he was giving one of those never-ending acceptance speeches at the Academy Awards, the kind where the overly appreciative celebrity is awkwardly forced to leave the stage.

“They're going to start playing the music to, like, play me off."

As for the Nationals, the only playing off they’re concerned with is the one that starts in the fall. But in a surprisingly stout division that features the upstart Atlanta Braves in first place, a young Philadelphia Phillies squad that’s vastly improved and a New York Mets club that, if it stays healthy (see: deGrom, Jacob) has the talent to contend, they've got plenty of work to do between now and then.

After all, regardless of what the game said, it’s only spring.