Over the weekend, the Washington Nationals were swept in their three-game series with the Atlanta Braves. Although the sweep reduced the Nationals' lead a still comfortable 5-1/2 games, the losses shed some light on potential pitfalls for the team as they look to reach the postseason for the first time in decades. For a team that has been in first place for 163 straight days, maintaining their lofty position should not be too challenging, since the roster is as deep and talented as any in baseball. Below are a few areas to monitor over the coming days which could impact the team's October plans.
Maintaining competitive edge
Any team with a comfortable lead is prone to a letdown when the competitive pressure is lessened. If there is a team that knows this better than most it is the Atlanta Braves, who surrendered a nine game lead in the month of September and played in this series like a team with something to prove. While a three game losing streak is nothing to get alarmed about, it will be the responsibility of Davey Johnson and veterans like Adam LaRoche, Edwin Jackson, and Jayson Werth to keep their teammates focused on the current task ahead. In doing so, the team should be able to continue their winning ways and head into the playoffs on a positive note.
The remaining series to end the season are all against teams that have a mathematical chance of making the postseason and teams that will approach each game looking to ascend the National League standings. If the Nationals do not come in with a comparable focus, they will be prone to more disappointing results. Among their remaining opponents are the Philadelphia Phillies who have a combined record of 5-10 against the Nationals.
With Stephen Strasburg shut down for the season, greater emphasis and pressure will be placed on the trio of Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, and Edwin Jackson to pitch consistently. The circumstances surrounding the team's handling of Strasburg has been a source of speculation and debate; but throughout the entire process the Nationals have remained steadfast that their approach is correct.
With Strasburg in the rotation the team could count on a dominant starter of shutting down any opposing offense. Now that responsibility will lie more on the left arm of 19-game winner Gio Gonzalez. The left-hander has been a welcomed addition to the Nationals' rotation in 2012, joining Strasburg to be one of baseball's more feared rotations.
As long as the starters can continue to provide quality starts, this team will be able to leverage one of baseball's deepest bullpen; anchored by two legitimate closers. The key for Washington is getting through their opponents' lineups twice with relative ease. In doing so will ensure consistent six to seven inning outings, more than enough to get this team to a division crown.
While Gonzalez has been performing at an ace level all season, the two pitchers who will have to demonstrate the capability of being solid second and third starters on this playoff rotation are Jordan Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson who have a combined record of 19-18 in 2012. After a couple of rough outings of late, if Zimmermann can get back to providing his consistent 6+ innings of quality work, the team will be better positioned to close out the season strong.
The same holds true for Jackson, who possesses playoff experience with the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals last season but has posted a 7.47 earned run average for the Nationals in September. Jackson has been a stead and reliable starter this season and the team will need more of his early season work if this team expects to contend.
Lack of offensive consistency
In the postseason, quality pitching is capable of shutting down even the most potent offenses in baseball; and over this weekend, the Atlanta Braves allowed just six runs on 19 hits (a .229 batting average). In the 12 September games prior the Nationals had been hitting the ball well, scoring an average of 5.8 runs, good for a two run margin of victory and accounting for nine wins prior to the Atlanta series.
Make no mistake; the Washington Nationals possess many streak hitters whose bats can get cold as quickly as they got hot. With teams like the Dodgers, Cardinals, and Phillies on the schedule, there is some solid pitching ahead that will look to keep the Nationals off base.
Fortunately for Washington, the starters that the team is projected to face over the six-game home stand have a combined record of 48-44 and an earned run average of 3.93. Unlike the Braves who ran out top tier quality pitching, the next six games present an opportunity for the Nationals' offense to get back on track.
At the start of the season, I had projected the Nationals to have a winning record but come up short in making the postseason. From the season's early games, I saw a different team on the field, one that appears to have gone from building a contending team to becoming contenders in their own right.
Throughout this season, the Nationals have risen to every challenge presented to them; each time responding to each instance of losing multiple games in a row with a winning streak. This approach all year has resulted in Washington to be the only team in baseball to have a winning record each month of the 2012 campaign. After all that this team has accomplished this year, there is not reason to believe that this team is on the precipice of a season-threatening slump.
Although Strasburg's appearance in the rotation would have given me a greater sense of confidence, I still see this team as being on equal footing with any in baseball. If the team can look past this past weekend's series and look ahead to winning each of their remaining series, they will secure the National League's best record and be poised to make a deep postseason run.
The fact that I am associating the Washington Nationals and playoffs in the same sentence should be satisfying enough for now, but this team has elevated my hopes and expectations that their many more winning days are ahead.
Scott Duhaime has been a devoted fan of the Washington Nationals (formerly Montreal Expos) for over 30 years.
Follow Scott on Twitter: @Scott_Duhaime
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