|The Nats lining up for celebratory high-fives has been a common occurrence this season|
Kind of hard to believe, isn't it?
It didn't take long for Washington to transform from NL East doormats to the winningest team in baseball. Three short years ago they lost 103 games, their second straight year hitting triple digits in the loss column. No, they didn't become contenders overnight like the Rays, but once the pieces were in place it didn't take long for everything to click. After dropping 93 games in 2010, the Nationals fell just one win shy of a .500 season last year. Everyone could see that the team was loaded with young talent and promise, especially after a busy offseason bolstered the starting rotation, but they weren't preseason favorites by any means. I remember some optimists picked them to sneak into the postseason with the second wild card in play, but even 90 wins seemed like a longshot. Certainly nobody expected them to wrestle the division title away from the star-studded Phillies (winners of 102 games in 2011), Braves, or even the new look Marlins who threw money around like they were the Yankees by splurging on pricy free agents Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell.
And yet, more than two-thirds of the way through the season, here they are. Number one. Poised to bring playoff baseball to Washington for the first time since the height of the Great Depression in 1933. On their way to setting the record for most wins in franchise history. I don't want to jinx them, and a lot can change over the next two months, but I think they're going to represent the NL in the Fall Classic. They have the best pitching in the National League with a staff that ranks first in ERA, innings pitched and fewest hits allowed. It ranks second in strikeouts behind only the Brewers. The humming offense has rounded into form, highlighted by a nice blend of power and speed. The defense is strong, too, one of the best in the league. See? Washington winning the pennant doesn't sound so far fetched after all.
But back to my original question; can they win 100 games? I think can. Here are my three main explanations that support the possibility of Washington accomplishing this feat.
1. The lineup is finally getting healthy/coming around
For much of the spring the Nats lineup was depleted by injuries to its core of key position players (count your lucky stars, Adam LaRoche and Danny Espinosa), necessitating Bryce Harper's much anticipated call-up at the end of April. The rookie sensation provided a spark with a hot start to his major league career. The past two months have been rough on him, though. Since June 13th he's batting .207/.285/.300 with just three home runs and 13 RBI. It's not surprising to see the 19 year-old struggle, especially since Mike Trout, with whom Harper is often compared, hit just as poorly in his brief debut last year. Most young players go through an adjustment period when the pitching catches up with them/exploits their flaws, and Harper is no different. Fortunately, his wounded teammates have returned to health and started to pull their weight.
Michael Morse-Washington was counting on the late-bloomer to produce the way he did the past two seasons when he batted a combined .298/.357/.539 with a 142 OPS+. Instead the 30 year-old began the season on the DL with a strained back and didn't take the field until June 2nd. Initially he struggled to rediscover his power stroke, slugging.411 (.123 ISO) with only four long balls and an ugly 41/5 K/BB rate in his first 40 games back. But over the past three weeks he's mashed like the middle-of-the-order threat he's supposed to be by belting seven big flies and slugging a robust .577 (.268 ISO). With hits in all but two of his past 28 games, Morse looks fully recovered and has put that slow start in the rearview mirror.
Ryan Zimmerman-As recently as six weeks ago, 2012 was shaping up to be a lost season for the franchise cornerstone, not exactly what the organization was expecting after locking him up through the remainder of the decade (and making him highest paid third baseman in MLB history not named Alex Rodriguez) with a six year contract extension worth $100 million with a $24 million club option for 2020. After a sluggish start Zimmerman landed on the DL with shoulder inflammation in late April and slumped horribly after returning to action on May 8th. He hit rock bottom on June 23rd, when his second straight 0-for-4 against the Orioles dropped his batting line to a measly.218/.285/.305 on the year. He had committed to playing through the pain for the remainder of the year, but looked like he was barely going to last until the All-Star Break. But since receiving a cortisone shot (which may or may not have contained some combination of magic pixi dust, anabolic steroids, or Michael Jordan's "secret stuff" from Space Jam) in his right shoulder before the series finale against Baltimore, he's looked like a new man. He picked up a pair of hits in the game, kicking off a torrid stretch during which he's batted an Albert Pujols-ian .352/.423/.665 with 13 home runs, 42 RBI and 40 runs scored. Cortisone shots wear off, but Zimmerman is in such a groove at the plate that he should finish the season with his typically strong numbers.
And let's not forget the team's most expensive position position player Jayson Werth, who missed nearly three months after breaking his wrist on May 6th. Since returning from the disabled list on August 2nd Werth has hit the ground running, recording at least one base knock in nine of ten games and raking at a .412/.512/.529 clip. And while he hasn't gone deep since the game before he broke his wrist, his power seems to be coming around too after smacking four doubles in the past four games. His batting eye looks good too with a 7/4 BB/K ratio (it's usually the other way around for him, with two strikeouts per every walk). This is the player Washington thought they were getting when they signed him to a much-criticized seven year, 126 million dollar contract before the 2011 season. Werth appears to be much more comfortable and relaxed at the plate this year. He's not pressing, not trying to do too much, and has really settled down (the same also applies to Boston's Carl Crawford).
The only regular (besides backstop Wilson Ramos, lost for the year with a torn ACL) still on the shelf is shortstop Ian Desmond, out since July 21st with a torn oblique. The first time All-Star took batting practice this weekend and hopes to return by the end of the month. He'll look to build upon a stellar first half in which the 26 year-old batted .286 with 17 home runs and 15 steals. If he can pick up where he left off and Harper gets back in a groove, this offense is going to score runs in bunches down the stretch.
2. The starting rotation is deep, young and talented
Some might say San Francisco or Philadelphia have the best rotation in the National League, but top to bottom I think Washington is the clear-cut choice. Before the Angels traded for Zack Greinke, adding the 2009 AL Cy Young winner to a rotation that already featured Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana, you could have made the case that the Nats possessed the best rotation in baseball. The starting five has remained healthy and durable; Strasburg, Zimmermann, Gonzalez, Jackson haven't missed a turn, while Detwiler sacrificed a handful in late May/early June when he shifted to the bullpen before rejoining the rotation. Combined, the rotation has posted a 3.19 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, and a 2.98 K/BB ratio. Basically, Davey Johnson is sending Matt Cain to the bump every day. Oh, and it probably helps that they're all still in their twenties.
Stephen Strasburg-His inning limit of 180 (not 160 as originally believed) shouldn't curtail his season too much. After missing most of 2011 recovering from Tommy John surgery, Strasburg has resumed pitching the way he did during his electrifying but abbreviated 2010 debut. While you can argue that he hasn't been the best pitcher in the league this year (Johnny Cueto, R.A. Dickey and Clayton Kershaw), you'd be hard-pressed to find a hurler that's been more dominant. His 166 punchouts and 11.2 K/9 rate are both tops in the Senior Circuit. Four times he's racked up double digit strikeouts in a single game, and three other times he finished with nine. The Nats went 12-2 in their ace's first 14 starts. The innings limit will likely cost him in the Cy Young voting this year, but I have a feeling he's probably going to win at least one somewhere down the line.
Jordan Zimmermann-After being limited to 160 innings last year--his first campaign back from Tommy John surgery--he proved his right arm could withstand the rigors of a full season. He's been set free this year--the kid gloves are off--and he's responded with a season worthy of Cy Young consideration. He leads the National League with a 169 ERA+ while his 2.35 ERA and 4.4 bWAR are second only to Ryan Vogelsong and Johnny Cueto, respectively, among NL hurlers. He has yet to allow more than four earned runs in a game this season and has completed at least six innings in all but one of his 23 starts. He hasn't been a big strikeout guy since the surgery--his 7.0 K/9 over the past three years is both pedestrian and a far cry from the impressive 9.1 mark he posted pre-surgery as a rookie in 2009--but he makes up for it by limiting baserunners and home runs as his 1.06 WHIP and 0.7 HR/9 rate are superlative. Hasn't recorded a loss since interleague play ended and the Nats have won eight of his previous nine turns.
Gio Gonzalez-Oakland GM Billy Beane sent him packing to the other league and other coast last winter, but it didn't take long for GG to get comfortable in his new surroundings. Gonzalez has thrived in his new digs, making his second consecutive trip to the Midsummer Classic and finding his name plastered all over the Senior Circuit pitching leaderboards. After leading the bigs with 91 walks allowed last year he's improved in that department, trimming his BB/9 rate from 4.1 last season to 3.4 this season. That reduction should prevent him from turning into the second coming of Jonathan Sanchez, another erratic southpaw who posted impressive strikeout rates but was undone by his swelling walk totals. Nobody does a better job at keeping the ball in the yard, either, as his miniscule 0.4 HR/9 rate leads both leagues. He served up just one gopher ball--to Josh Harrison (four career big flies) of all people--through his first 88 and two-thirds innings of the year. No wonder the Nats won 14 of his 17 first half starts. If he keeps this up, he just might win 20.
Edwin Jackson-Has been rock solid in his role as middle of the rotation glue. After settling for a one year, $11 million deal with Washington in the offseason, the one-time All-Star is well on his way to another year as an above average starter. His 7-7 record doesn't accurately reflect how well he's pitched because he hasn't received much run support; in ten of his 22 starts the Nats have scored three runs or less, including a painful stretch at the end of May when they put just one run on the board in each of his three starts. No wonder he was only 4-4 through June 23rd despite a sparkling 2.91 ERA! Since then he's struggled to the tune of a bloated 5.48 ERA in eight starts, but Jackson is notoriously inconsistent. Why do you think he's played for six teams in five years? Remember that we're talking about a guy who walked eight Tampa Bay Rays when he twirled a no-hitter at the Trop in 2010. Given that his career ERA is 4.38, this slump can be chalked up to simple regression to the mean. He'll look to turn it around against the fading Mets on Friday.
Ross Detwiler-The team's number five starter (aside from a brief stint in the bullpen when Chien-Ming Wang--remember him?--came off the disabled list) has been everything you could ever ask for and more. The lefty groundballer has maintained a nifty 2.99 ERA and 1.18 WHIP, numbers that most teams would love to get out of their aces, let alone the worst starter in their rotation. He's been even stingier of late with a 1.93 ERA in his five second half starts, four of which have been quality. It's safe to say he's overachieved with the help of some good fortune, and there's no way he can keep this up much longer, but I don't hear anyone complaining. Especially not when he's earning less than half a million dollars this year.
3. The bullpen is top notch
The relief corps has been nearly as good as the rotation with their 3.31 ERA and limiting opponents to a collective .226 batting average. This gives Johnson the luxury of not having to push his starters into the seventh or eighth inning too frequently, therefore keeping their pitch counts low and protecting their arms. All-Star setup man Tyler Clippard stepped into the closer's role in late May with Drew Storen sidelined and has performed admirably, converting 24 of 28 save opportunities with a 2.88 ERA since taking over the closing duties full-time. Storen has been back for several weeks now, but the job remains Clippard's to lose.
But Clippard isn't the only fireman who's been lights-out this year. In fact, it's nearly impossible to find fault with any of the bullpen's members. Henry Rodriguez (5.83 ERA) is the only one who's struggled, but everyone else has been tremendous; Craig Stammen (2.29 ERA), Sean Burnett (1.81 ERA, 0.96 WHIP), Ryan Mattheus (2.68 ERA), Mike Gonzalez (2.31 ERA) and Tom Gorzelanny (3.35 ERA) own the late innings. You won't see Washington blow too many leads with that crew.
Please note: except for team record, all stats through Saturday, August 11th.