Nationals finally vault into first place in the NL East -- temporarily

BALTIMORE -- It was a night of firsts at Camden Yards.

Bryce Harper and Manny Machado homered in the same game for the first time ever. Harper had his first three-hit game in nearly a month. Rookie sensation Juan Soto had the first three-hit game of his career.

But for the Washington Nationals, the most important first was this: For the first time in 55 days, they found themselves back in first place.

With their 3-2 win over the Baltimore Orioles, the Nats climbed even with the upstart Atlanta Braves atop the National League East. It marked the first time since the morning of April 4 that Washington held at least a share of first place. Although the season is only a third of the way over, and although the view from the top didn't last long (another comeback win by Atlanta bumped Washington back into second), the Nats' fleeting foothold on first wasn't lost on the guys in the visitors clubhouse.

"It's a great feeling," said first-year manager Davey Martinez when informed that his squad had clawed its way back to the top of the NL East, a fact of which he claims he was previously unaware. "It's a testament to those guys. Not me. Those guys go out there every day and grind it out."

That Washington has been able to grind with such success, especially in what has been a surprisingly stout division, borders on the miraculous. After winning four straight to start the season, the Nats promptly went in the tank, losing 16 of their next 23 contests to fall six games back. That slide coincided with the loss of spark plug Adam Eaton, who injured his ankle in early April, and do-it-all third baseman Anthony Rendon, who suffered a broken toe not long after.

But wait, there's more. Much more.

Although Rendon is healthy again and back to doing Rendon things (1.090 OPS over the past week), Eaton is still on the shelf. As is Daniel Murphy -- one of the game's most dangerous hitters -- who is still rehabbing from November microfracture surgery. As is starting first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, out since May 9 with back issues. As is starting catcher Matt Wieters, out since May 10 with a hamstring injury.

If you're scoring at home, that's essentially half of Washington's starting lineup. As if that weren't bad enough, top outfield prospect Victor Robles, who would have been the no-brainer replacement for Eaton, hyperextended his elbow two days before Eaton hit the disabled list. Oh, and super sub Howie Kendrick, who spent the first seven weeks of the season filling in for Eaton in left and Murphy at second, blew out his Achilles tendon. All of which is to say the Nationals are more battered than a bucket of KFC.

Entering play on Tuesday, Washington had lost 524 player days to the DL, third most in the majors, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The two teams ahead of them (Texas Rangers and San Diego Padres) were a combined 44-67 and were both in last place. Yet there were the Nats, fresh off their 20th win in 26 games, sitting pretty in first place.

Granted, their past five games (all wins) have come against the Orioles and Miami Marlins, a pair of lowly teams that will be vying for the first pick in next year's draft. And before that, they took two of three from the aforementioned Padres. But also mixed into their recent run are series victories against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Philadelphia Phillies and Arizona Diamondbacks, all of whom were in first place at the time they threw down with Washington. For that, the Nats have their depth to thank.

"Everybody's been stepping up," said Harper, who launched his NL-leading 17th homer but is hitting .238 on the season. "Next-man mentality. This whole club, we've got an attitude to have fun and enjoy the game, and anything can happen. If we get our guys back and keep doing the things that we need to, then we'll be OK."

In the meantime, the Nationals are doing just fine thanks to the guys they've got.

Veteran slugger Mark Reynolds, who signed two weeks into the season for $1 million, has six bombs in 12 games (including one on Tuesday), is hitting over .400 and looks like the deal of the century.

Reserve Matt Adams, another bargain-basement signing (one year, $4 million), has nine homers in May, tied with Harper for most in the NL.

Then there's Soto, who on Tuesday became the first National this season to record three hits with an exit velocity of at least 105 mph. Soto also picked up his first career outfield assist and first career stolen base.

"He's been great," said Harper, a former top overall pick who knows a thing or two about being an impact player as a teenager. "Keeping his head down and playing ball. It's a lot of fun to have him."

Martinez offered his take on Soto.

"He doesn't act like a 19-year-old," Martinez said.

Just like the Nationals haven't been acting like a team that's as banged up as they are.

"We've gotten contributions from a lot of different guys," said closer Sean Doolittle, who was unusually demonstrative on the mound Tuesday after getting the final out for his 12th save. "That's been the key for us."

Another key for the Nationals has been their starting pitching.

Although Jeremy Hellickson wasn't great Tuesday, he was good enough, allowing two earned runs over five innings to earn the win. His ERA on the season now stands at 2.30 -- not too shabby for a No. 5 starter. His outing marked the 27th time in the past 28 games that a Nats starter has yielded three earned runs or less. On the season, Washington's rotation is now carrying a 2.88 ERA, best in the National League and second only to the Houston Astros' front five in baseball.

"The starting pitching has been unbelievable for us the whole time," Doolittle said. "They give us a chance to win every single night. But it's almost like there are reinforcements on the way."

Once those reinforcements come in the form of Eaton, Murphy and others, Washington's chances of winning should only increase. And if the Nats can get their entire starting lineup on the field at the same time -- well, that would be another first.