Their previous surges have served only to tease, to make the ensuing stumbles more maddening. The Washington Nationals contend this time will be different. The Nationals have searched for reasons to believe their months-long bout with mediocrity would be temporary, and after they bludgeoned the San Diego Padres on Friday night, they may have their most valid one yet. Now that they are whole, the Nationals might be dangerous.

The Nationals’ jilted, battered fans may not believe them before they see it. They have offered promising signs before Friday’s 8-5 victory over reeling San Diego, and they all led back to the same disappointment. But those signs came before Bryce Harper returned to the middle of the lineup, before Wilson Ramos came back to catch and before Manager Davey Johnson tweaked the batting order.

“When you can lengthen the lineup out the way we’re able to when we’re healthy, my goodness,” hitting coach Rick Eckstein said. “Everybody realizes, ‘If you’re not going to pitch to me, you got to pitch to him.’ That’s a good feeling. These guys, they feed off of each other.”

The Nationals, who sliced their National League East deficit to five games as Atlanta lost, have done their damage without Harper at his peak. Since hitting a homer in his first at-bat back from the disabled list, Harper has gone 0 for 18 with three walks and a handful of line drives that found gloves. Johnson plans to give Harper both Saturday and Sunday off, both a mental and physical break.

“He’s just grinding too hard,” Johnson said. “Coming back from the long layoff, I just need to back off him.”

Friday night, Gio Gonzalez earned his third consecutive win, dancing around early trouble to hold the Padres to three earned runs over 62 / 3 innings. In his second game back from the disabled list after missing 44, Ramos led the barrage with another three RBI, giving him eight in two games. “Not a bad eight hitter,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.

Every position player in the Nationals’ starting lineup except Anthony Rendon (who walked and scored a run) and Harper (who drilled a sacrifice fly) recorded at least one hit. Jayson Werth, moved Thursday from second to sixth in the lineup, socked three hits for the second straight day.

“I like the way the lineup is swinging the bat, really,” Johnson said. “Good at-bats, quality at-bats. That’s what I’ve been looking for. That takes the pressure off everybody in the lineup.”

The Padres made the final margin more respectable when Carlos Quentin crushed a three-run homer off Craig Stammen. But the Nationals, on the power of a five-run second inning, had taken a massive lead and scored eight runs for the second consecutive day.

The Nationals will neither receive sympathy from opponents nor a re-do from the league. Most every team deals with injuries, and the Nationals allowed theirs to stall their season. In a small sample, though, the Nationals look like a different offense. Thursday, they played with their opening day lineup (save Rendon swapped in for the demoted Danny Espinosa) for the first time since April 13.