In April, my friend Elliot asked me, “Is it time to believe yet?” when the club was 10-3 and the Nats were the first to ten wins in the majors. Any team can go 10-3 over the stretch of 13 games.
In May, he asked me again, as the Nationals were 26-17, “is it time yet?” and given that the bats had remained somewhat silent, and the lead in the NL East was tenuous, I couldn’t yet pull the trigger, especially with the injury bug that seemed to affect the Nationals, before it was left in Toronto.
Last night’s 6-5 victory in the 9th was a tipping point for many fans. At 48-32, the Nationals have the 3rd best record in baseball, the best in the National League, and have a four and a half game lead on the second place Braves. They posses the 4th best run differential in the bigs, mostly the product of the last week’s worth of offensive triumphs over the NL West. It’s hard not to look at the pitching staff and just grin, because any series will see one – if not more – of Strasburg/Gio/Zimmermann. The Nationals’ pitching staff carries WHIP (Walks + Hits per inning pitched) rate of just 1.20 – best in the majors, and the lowest opposing batting average at .231.
The numbers aren’t the whole story – in fact, the numbers barely begin to scratch the surface.
More than just numbers, the success of this team can be attributed to its never-say-die attitude. Thursday night’s contest against the leaders of the NL West saw the Nationals down 5-2 to the Giants’ most dominating pitcher, Matt Cain, whose perfect game this season may have altered the name of a high school friend’s youngest son, born the night of the feat. In seasons past, that’s the sort of game that the team would write off as lost.
Instead, the Nationals had Bryce Harper telling Adam LaRoche, “We’re going to win this game. Just be ready for it.” Harper delivered in the 9th, driving in the tying run off Santiago Casilla, and LaRoche would finish the deed, scoring Harper on a ground ball that the Giants’ Brandon Belt couldn’t hang on to. The mob was out, the sub horn was going off, and the Nationals had won their 48th game.
At 16 games over .500, the Nationals are at their best since July of 2005, when the team – still so new they squeaked – peaked at 19 game over .500. They’ve done it with a difficult road schedule, and despite the injury bug claiming a number of star players for significant stretches. The Nationals have seen their starting catcher end his season with a torn ACL, their star right fielder break his arm diving for a catch, their closer have surgery for bone spurs in his elbow, and their slugging left fielder spent a long stint on the DL to start the year with a torn muscle in his back. They’ve done as well on the road as they have at home, and they’ve won 16 of the 26 series they’ve played so far this season, losing just six series, and getting swept just thrice.
How dominant have the Nats been this season? Of the 18 teams they’ve played this year, they only have a losing record to four other teams: the Orioles, the Yankees, the Marlins and the Dodgers. That’s three teams that have lead their divisions, and, well, the Marlins, who’ve had the Nationals’ number every season since the team moved from Montreal.
At the beginning of the season, the number I had in my head for wins by this ball club was 86. I figured they might have a good shot at the 2nd Wild Card position. Now, I’m not so sure they’re not going to inch up toward 100 wins and win the NL East running away with yet. There are some factors that may slow this juggernaut, though.
The first is the impending shutdown of Stephen Strasburg, whose innings limit is suspected to be between 160 and 170 innings pitched this year, which means he has about 11 starts remaining this season. That would put the end of Strasburg’s season sometime in early September. The loss of the Nats’ number one hurler shouldn’t be in doubt, the club has been fairly clear about the strict innings limit for their ace, who is still recovering from a 2010 Tommy John surgery. Could the Nationals make it without their ace? The rest of their starting staff has been solid, and two of their long relievers have seen action as starters. Both Craig Stammen and Tom Gorzelanny have put in solid work this season in long relief, so it’s conceivable they’ll come in from the pen, or John Lannan might return to the big club.
Of course, that’s not the only possibility, and there’s been some talk that the Nats might move for another starting pitcher. The names of Zack Greinke (Milwaukee, 9-2, 3.08 ERA, 106 K) and Matt Garza (Chicago Cubs, 4-7, 4.32 ERA, 86 K) have come up in recent conversations, but it’s hardly a sure thing at this point. Principal owner Mark Lerner has said that Nats GM Mike Rizzo will have latitude and budgetary support for moves that are necessary at the trade deadline – coming up at the end of July – but also said that no “knee-jerk” moves were likely where the franchise might move a key prospect in exchange for a rent-a-player to make a playoff run.
The loss of Strasburg will hurt the Nationals, but I’m not sure it’s enough to make this any less exciting.
I was thinking this afternoon, the last time I was this excited to watch a team play baseball was 1990, and I was 12 years old and watching the Oakland A’s. It was their third straight season dominating the AL West, and their dominant pitching staff played merry hob with their opponents. The unbridled enthusiasm of a fan base long left without winners in Oakland packed the Coliseum with noise and fire through the second half of that season. Of course, everything seemed magical then, the eyes of youth are less critical, than those that have weathered disappointment. As I’ve grown older, and my enthusiasm for just about everything has been tempered by experience, I still find myself on the verge of that same excitement I had in the late 1980s watching the Bash Brothers and Dave Stewart and Bob Welch win a World Series.
This is the time to bring your enthusiasm, DC, this is a team that will find itself still playing come early October, and could go deep into the postseason. Attendance at Nationals Park has been on the rise all season, mostly because the Nationals are bringing good product to the field.
Better yet, the Nats are playing as if they can win each and every one of them. Last night’s win over the Giants was just the start. The future of this franchise is bright, and this is the first act of a mighty fine play. This is a team that can beat the long odds, and you’re not going to want to miss a second of it. Get onboard, DC, this one’s for real.