How good are the Washington Nationals?
The Washington Nationals have to be considered one of the favorites to represent the National League in the 2012 World Series. The leaders of the N.L. East arrived in Houston this week sporting a .602 winning percentage. The Cincinnati Reds (.611) were the only team in baseball with a better winning percentage. The upstart Nats took care of business with a four game sweep of the lowly Astros to reclaim the league’s best record. But is this Washington team built to succeed in the post-season?
Prior to this week’s series in Houston I had only seen the Nats play a few times, and like most fans I was pretty sure they had an outstanding young team. Yes, the Nationals were able to sweep the series against the Astros. But after watching them struggle to put away the league’s worst team four night’s in a row, I am beginning to question whether or not the Nats can get it done in October. Let’s take a closer look at the team from our nation’s capitol and see how they might stack up.
It took Washington extra innings to secure victory in each of the first two games in Houston. The bullpen was unable to protect a lead in the first game and the Nats offense couldn’t solve Jordan Lyles in game two. Lyles, who has been hit around by almost every team in the league, has now authored a couple of good starts against the Nationals.
The bullpen was taken out of the equation in game three as Gio Gonzalez tossed only the second complete game of the year by a Washington hurler. Gonzalez was impressive both on the mound and with the bat. Gio blasted a two-run homer in a 4-3 game, providing the margin of victory and half of his team’s offensive output.
Thursday the Nats scratched out two runs in five innings before the offensively-challenged Astros were forced to pinch-hit for their best pitcher, Lucas Harrell. Meanwhile Jordan Zimmerman was shutting down the Astros and racking up an impressive number of strikeouts. With Harrell out of the game the Astros had lost any mojo they may have had and this one was over early. Michael Morse blasted a pair of homers against the Astros bullpen, reminding us that he’s capable of providing some thunder to a lineup that seems to be looking for a boost.
Stephen Strasburg didn’t pitch in this series. Considering the much ballyhooed innings limit that has been placed on the young ace, Strasburg is also unlikely to pitch in the postseason. So the starting pitchers we saw in Houston this week would appear to be what the Nationals will be working with come October. The Nats pitched well in Houston but, then again, that was against the Astros. Can these same guys fare as well against a playoff caliber lineup while dealing with the pressure that comes with the post-season?
The Nationals can definitely pitch. They lead the league in ERA, FIP, and pitching WAR. But all of those stats include Steven Strasburg’s numbers. How good will the staff be without their young ace? That is of course assuming that Mike Rizzo sticks to his guns and shuts down Strasburg in September. The four remaining starters have put together some impressive numbers that would suggest shutting down Strasburg is no big deal.
Tyler Clippard anchors a bullpen that has managed to get the job done on a regular basis. Although Clippard blew a save in the Astros series he has been fairly solid as the closer and has an impressive 1.07 WHIP. Left-hander Sean Burnett has been money in a setup role and Drew Storen is back after undergoing elbow surgery. Storen could have the best “stuff” in the Nats ‘pen and could eventually return to the role of closer. Flame-thrower Henry Rodriguez, who is currently on the D.L. with lower back issues, could also prove to be a key component in the Washington bullpen down the stretch.
The Nats have also proven that they can win on the road. Not only is their 37-21 record the best in the league, it’s also better than the home record of every team in either league, with the exception of Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
The ability to pitch and win on the road should carry the Nationals deep into the post-season. But do they have enough firepower on offense to seal the deal. Morse is on an 18-game hitting streak and is once again proving that he can carry the team on his back. Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche provide sufficient pop from the corner infield spots and are mainstays in the middle of the batting order. After bursting onto the big league scene earlier this season, Bryce Harper has struggled in the second half. But I wouldn’t count him out just yet – this kid is special. Wouldn’t it be something if the teenager could rise to the occasion and become a World Series hero!