I don’t normally wax poetic about baseball. I usually take a more analytical approach to covering the game. But it’s hard to write anything analytical or critical about this team right now.
After taking two out of three games from the New York Mets this weekend, your Washington Nationals increased their lead in the N.L.East to five games ahead of the Atlanta Braves, who come to D.C. for a three-game set Monday through Wednesday. It’s not a crucial series for the Nats, but it sure is for the Braves.
The Nats (75-46) are 29 games above .500 for the second time this season and two games ahead of the surging Cincinnati Reds in the loss column for the best record in Major League Baseball. Their five-game division lead is only eclipsed by those same Reds. The Nats own the best road record in the league. Their pitching staff is first in the N.L. in fewest runs per game total. The offense is up to sixth in runs per game for the season and have averaged 4.9 runs per game since the All-Star Game.
Since the Braves come-from-behind 11-10 win July 20, the Nationals are 22-8 (.733, a 119-win pace), averaging 5.0 runs per game.
Any way you want to slice it, the Nats are at or near the top of the league. And it appears they are only getting better as the hitting becomes more healthy and more consistent.
Long-time Nats fans, those that braved R.F.K. and then sat through back-to-back 100-loss seasons, surely find themselves either pinching themselves each day to make sure they aren’t dreaming, or trying to find ways not to “jinx” what’s going on, as if they have any power over what happens on the field by their thoughts, actions or habits.
No, to believe in “jinx” would be short-changing the talent on the field.
GM Mike Rizzo finally has “his team” on the field, minus catcher Wilson Ramos, lost for the year. He’s assembled a roster of veterans, journeymen and rising stars to capture the attention of baseball fans all over the country and the hearts of District area residents, who haven’t had playoff baseball since 1933.
At the beginning of the season, we conduct a poll of Nats bloggers and independent media on their predictions for the upcoming Nats season. Of the 22 respondents this season, exactly NONE had the Nats finishing in first place. Only six had them for second. Two bold respondents predicted 90-plus wins (the Nats are currently on pace for an even 100 wins). The folks that follow this team as closely as anyone — and are willing to make their opinions known in public — couldn’t see this coming. Even the most sycophant couldn’t have predicted what the Nats have done this season.
I had them at 83 wins. So what the hell do I know?
Everyone, from fans to bloggers to local and national media, thought this season would be a springboard to next year — and the year after that, and the year after that — as the Nats young talent developed and emerged into something more than mere talent — a team. Even Rizzo himself planned it that way, as his handling of Stephen Strasburg and The Shutdown speaks more of a team that was planning to not be in competition for a division title, as was the case last season with Jordan Zimmermann. You can’t assume playoff games in February and March.
But the performance on the field has indeed pushed up the timetable.
Davey Johnson has pushed the right buttons all year long. Due to injury, he’s gotten playing time and production from youngsters slated to spend much of the season in the minor leagues. He’s massaged a diverse and talented bullpen, thriving despite the loss of a 43-save closer for two-thirds of the season. He’s mixed and matched his bench to get optimal matchups, allowing career underachievers to flourish in well-defined roles that suit their talent.
Strasburg or not, this team is as good as any in baseball. If the Nats go into the playoffs (a near certainty, requiring epic and catastrophic injury to not qualify in some manner) with a rotation of Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler, this staff still matches up with anyone in baseball, as long as Tim Lincecum doesn’t find his Cy Young form in the season’s last six weeks.
The lineup has power and speed. The bullpen is deep and versatile. The rotation is the best in baseball. They are led by an venerable and veteran manager. They are poised for post-season baseball.
If the Braves don’t come in here and sweep this week, they’re toast.