The Nationals team that everyone expected to see this season has finally started to surface, and right now that only means trouble for the Royals and their ever-dwindling playoff chances.
Kansas City was as close as 4 1/2 games back of the first-place Tigers in the American League Central at the end of June, and held steady through much of July. But they've lost seven in a row after a 7-2 Nationals win on Saturday night at Kauffman Stadium, and 10 of 12. They sit 11 1/2 back of Detroit and have four straight series losses.
The Nats, meanwhile, are trending in the opposite direction, having won 11 of 15. But is it too little, too late for a team that was billed as a World Series favorite after taking baseball by surprise last year?
It seems like a foregone conclusion that the Braves will run away with the National League East, but the Nats have an outside shot at the Wild Card, pegged at 1.9 percent by MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus.
But the offense is what has made the difference over this stretch, which has included series wins against the Phillies, Giants, Cubs and now the Royals. While entering Saturday night with the 24th-most runs scored (498) in baseball this season, the Nats have averaged 5.73 per game over the last 15.
They have a winning record for the first time since July 14, the last day before the All-Star break.
Right-hander Ervin Santana will be tasked with slowing the Washington bats in Sunday's series finale, when he opposes righty Dan Haren. Santana threw a quality start on Tuesday against Chicago, but took the 2-0 loss. He scattered four hits, two runs and two walks over six innings. One of the runs scored on a passed ball that disappeared into the signage behind home plate. Santana looked for the ball to bounce back toward home plate, but he caught a bad break instead.
"That's what I was waiting for, but l-u-c-k-y me," Santana said sarcastically.
Royals: Maxwell coming up big
Outfielder Justin Maxwell has hit safely in 13 of his 16 games with the Royals since joining them on July 31 -- batting 17-for-48 in that span.
• Alex Gordon had a six-game hit streak snapped on Saturday, but is still 9-for-30 with four RBIs and six runs over his last seven games.
• Santana is 3-1 with a 2.45 ERA since the All-Star break. He has three no-decisions against the Nationals with a 3.10 ERA and 20 strikeouts over 20 1/3 innings. He's held the Nationals to a .183 average.
Nationals: Haren continues strong second half
Haren has four wins in his last five starts, and is 3-0 with a 1.04 ERA in August. Since he gave up five runs in five innings on July 22, his ERA has dipped from 5.79 to 4.64. Haren has allowed more than one run in only one start since that game, and it was when he surrendered two in seven innings against the Phillies on Aug. 9. He beat the Cubs in his last outing.
"As the game progressed, my stuff got better and better," Haren said. "My cutter was real good; I worked it in on lefties a lot. I didn't throw quite as many splits tonight, and my fastball got better as the game went along."
Haren is 4-0 with a 1.99 ERA in six starts at Kauffman Stadium. In 10 career starts against the Royals, he's 5-2.
• Washington has won a season-best five consecutive games on the road and its five-game winning streak matches a season high.
• Kansas City has scored three runs or fewer in 10 of its last 12 games, including two shutouts.
• The Nationals, now at 11-8, have secured a winning record in Interleague play for the third consecutive season (10-8 in 2012 and 8-7 in '11).