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Nationals find a little urgency, score a 5-4, series-opening victory over the Mets

At this point in the Washington Nationals’ season, when rock bottom is supposedly behind them but the grappling hooks have yet to catch atop the National League East, urgency should be a given. They hashed it all out in a team meeting. They trail two teams in the division. Nothing about their situation facilitates comfort.

So that their manager, Dave Martinez, said he hoped to see urgency in his players Thursday made a great deal of sense. That they won, 5-4, against the host New York Mets suggests they heard his message, even though it was spoken to reporters while most players were off doing something or other — many with ear buds locked firmly in their ears.

If it wasn’t a sense of urgency that helped the Nationals to a series-opening win, it might have been the boost provided by Max Scherzer’s seven strong innings in which he allowed three runs. It could have been the early lead provided by Anthony Rendon’s two home runs or the late insurance yielded by Bryce Harper’s 23rd of the season, a two-run shot that helped the Nationals move to 47-46. Whatever it was, the Nationals have seen this before — a night of stability, a game that went right. The issue, of course, is sustaining it. Urgency, nebulous as it is, seems to come and go.

“We’ve got a lot of baseball left,” Harper said. “That’s a good Mets team over there. We just got to keep grinding, keep doing our thing.”

Martinez has asked for urgency before, starting a few weeks ago. The trouble with urgency is defining it, since teams playing with urgency generally win, and those not playing with urgency generally do not. Or, perhaps, teams that win look like they are playing with urgency. The diagnosis is complicated.

For example, one might argue that when Rendon followed Juan Soto’s first-inning single with a two-run homer, the Nationals were playing with urgency. One could also argue that when Asdrubal Cabrera’s blooper fell between four Nationals in the vicinity in the bottom of the inning, they were not displaying much urgency at all. Cabrera scored on a Jose Bautista single.

Rendon homered again two innings later, his 15th of the season. He is the kind of player who never seems to show much urgency at all. He is always relaxed, endlessly laid-back, and never seems to celebrate or show frustration. He is the epitome of consistency, offensively and defensively, the most reliable cog in the lineup as injuries and inconsistency threw wrenches into the operation.

Rendon compiled a .796 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in April, a .907 OPS in May and a .937 OPS in June. Perhaps the key to offensive improvement is not so much urgency but rather steadiness and commitment to detail. Asked whether anything has changed with this team since the meetings and the urgency urging, Rendon said he couldn’t think of anything.

“I can’t pinpoint anything,” said Rendon, for whom nothing ever seems to change.

That steady, switch-always-flipped approach seems to work for Scherzer, too. The right-hander has not been dominant lately. He entered Thursday with a 3.27 ERA in his past five starts, averaging just more than nine strikeouts per nine innings. His consistency can best be explained by the fact that both numbers represented regressions from his mean.

The first run he allowed Thursday need not have scored. Someone should have caught Cabrera’s blooper, and Michael A. Taylor had a chance at Bautista’s RBI single. He and Scherzer talked about it after the game.

The second run the right-hander allowed, a home run to Bautista in the fourth, certainly should have been a run: Scherzer hung a pitch out and over the plate. He did the same to Kevin Plawecki in the seventh. By that time, he had allowed eight home runs in his past six starts, a familiar problem for Scherzer. If he has a kryptonite, it is the solo homer.

But Scherzer preserved the Nationals’ lead to the eighth, at which point he gave way to the bullpen after striking out five and scattering five hits in his final start before Tuesday’s All-Star Game at Nationals Park. He has stated his case to start that game and finished the season’s first half with a 2.41 ERA, a 12-5 record and a sub-1.00 WHIP.

Harper, who had hit just two of his 22 homers in the seventh inning or later, hit his third in the seventh to provide some cushion.

“Just trying to go out there and take the same swing every day,” said Harper, who refuses to partake in the urgency narrative and always has. “Get a pitch over the plate and not miss it. Be patient and do the things I can to help this team win.”

Kelvin Herrera, supposedly the interim closer, was used in the eighth inning and surrendered a solo homer by Cabrera, and Ryan Madson handled the ninth. Martinez said later that he liked the matchup of Herrera against the top of the Mets’ order. He is managing with urgency, enough that he also warmed up Brandon Kintzler, just in case either needed help. The bullpen has been exhausted for much of this season, in large part because one-run games have necessitated so much urgency that Kintzler and Madson have hit the disabled list for stretches. Herrera showed signs of fatigue Thursday night, but he survived the ordeal.

Now, the Nationals must show the same urgency Friday night — or at least appear to show the same urgency. Or maybe just win, which is the more urgent issue anyway.

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