Rays Nationals Baseball

Tampa Bay Rays’ Joey Wendle, left, steals second past Washington Nationals third baseman Carter Kieboom (8) during the third inning of a baseball game, Monday in Washington.

WASHINGTON (AP) — For one night in this dud of a season for Washington, the defending World Series champion Nationals looked like themselves — getting a solid start from Max Scherzer, timely hitting and crisp defense.

That they did it with recently signed utilityman Brock Holt batting third and banged-up catcher Kurt Suzuki as the cleanup hitter shows just how awry things have gone for the Nationals in 2020.

“Nothing’s normal this year,” Scherzer said.

Scherzer cooled off Tampa Bay with seven scoreless innings, and the Nationals beat the AL East-leading Rays 6-1 on Monday night.

Suzuki had an RBI double among his three hits and Michael A. Taylor drove in two runs for the last-place Nationals, who were missing several regulars and started Holt at designated hitter for the sixth time in his career. Holt went 2 for 4 with a double and has nine hits over his past three games.

“I always admired the way he played the game from the other side, playing against him, always thought he was a tough out, puts the ball in play, plays all the positions, great teammate,” Suzuki said of Holt, who signed with Washington in late August after the Brewers released him. “He’s fun to have in the lineup. He’s a little spark plug for us.”

Scherzer (4-2) stranded six baserunners in the first four innings before settling in and retiring 10 straight batters in one stretch. The three-time Cy Young Award winner allowed six hits, struck out eight and walked one in his second-longest outing of the season.

“I always want to get through seven innings,” Scherzer said. “That’s a good team over there. They’ve been playing great baseball and their offense has been doing some good things. They had me on the ropes a few times early in the game. Was able to throw some big pitches to prevent runs from scoring and then just went to work.”

Scherzer said his curveball and changeup were sharper than they had been recently and that made his fastball more effective.

“It almost seemed like his fastball got better as the game went on,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “Once he settles in, he gets really, really tough. Whether it’s command, whether it’s some extra velocity, there’s a reason he’s going to be in the Hall of Fame one day.”

The Rays came in with a season-best 5 1/2-game lead in the AL East and had won 22 of 27, while the Nationals were coming off a 3-8 trip that left a playoff berth highly unlikely.

In his second start since missing three weeks with shoulder inflammation, Tampa Bay right-hander Charlie Morton (1-2) threw 57 pitches in five innings, allowing three runs and four hits.

“Very encouraged with his outing,” Cash said.

Randy Arozarena homered for the Rays in the eighth, connecting against Tanner Rainey. Tampa Bay loaded the bases with two outs in the ninth against Will Harris and forced manager Dave Martinez to bring in closer Daniel Hudson, who struck out Arozarena for his eighth save in 11 chances.

Washington broke it open with three runs in the sixth against Trevor Richards. Holt led off with a double off the wall in right and scored on Josh Harrison’s single. Taylor hit a one-out flare over the drawn-in infield and sprinted to second for a double that scored Suzuki and Eric Thames.

The Nationals were without slugger Juan Soto (sore elbow), Howie Kendrick (rest) and Asdrúbal Cabrera (stiff back), and Luis Garcia (sore heel) was scratched.

“Let’s put it this way. I drank an extra cup of coffee and kind of regrouped and tried to figure things out,” Martinez said. “When you have veteran guys ... you can put up a lineup and know that you’re going to be OK. Those guys tonight played tremendously.”