The Washington Nationals remain at the top of the National League standings and are poised for their first playoff appearance in 31 seasons, when the Nationals played north of the border as the Expos. The team is on pace for 100 wins and can look at dominant pitching and overall consistency as keys to their success. Washington remains the only team in baseball to post a winning record every month this season, propelling the team to a division lead on May 22 and never looking back. The current 7.5 game lead represents the largest the team has held all season, and there is little indication that this team is capable of suffering a September collapse as their division rival Atlanta Braves did in 2011.
There is an old adage in baseball that "great pitching beats great hitting." and at present, the Nationals can look to their reliability as proof of the statement's accuracy. For the season, Washington has used just 18 pitchers, which ranks second in the National League. The consistent availability is one issue, but getting the job done consistently is another; and the Nationals can boast one of baseball's most talented and productive pitching staffs, anchored by young phenom Stephen Strasburg. While the team has yet to play games without the presence of Steven Strasburg at the top of the rotation, the Nationals have a deep and talented pitching staff that is more than able to carry a heavier load as October approaches. Gio Gonzalez has re-emerged as an ace, posting a 2.84 earned run average in August. Possessing a World Series ring from his season with the Cardinals in 2011, Edwin Jackson has entered the month of September pitching his most dominant baseball of the year. Ross Detwiler has been solid since being reinserted in the rotation in late July; posting a WHIP of less than 1.00 since August 1.
While these three starters look to be ready for October, the recent struggles of Jordan Zimmermann should give fans some minor reason for concern. Two seasons removed from Tommy John surgery, Jordan Zimmermann has now pitched more innings than at any time in his young professional career. While he has been durable and successful throughout most of the season, the innings he has logged this season appears to be affecting him. In recent outings, the young right-hander has struggled with control, but his velocity has remained constant. If Zimmermann can get through this current stretch of shaky outings and regain his control, Washington will be in a great position as the postseason approaches.
Looking at the National League landscape and there are few teams that can match the depth and produciton of the Nationals' pitching. Not only have the starters consistently logged impactful innings, the performance of the bullpen has also been a key factor. The Nationals bullpen is rare in that they have two legitimate closers to end ballgames with; and the Nationals can turn to the combination of Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen when the games are on the line. The closers are not the only ones who have played a meaningful role for Washington, as reliable relievers like Sean Burnett, Ryan Mattheus, and Craig Stammen have consistently gotten the job done in the middle innigs as well.
Pitching is not the only factor in the team's successful 2012 campaign, as a once weak offense is now deeper than it has been since the team arrived in the Nation's Capitol in 2005. By season's end there could be as many as five batters with 20 or more home runs, while LaRoche is on pace for a 30 home run and 100 runs batted in season.
LaRoche has more than made up for his injury-shortened 2011 season and has been the most consistent producer for the Nationals all season. While he has been consistently productive, of late he is tearing the cover off the baseball and making a late season push for serious MVP consideration. Since bottoming out with a .259 batting average on August 31, LaRoche has been on fire, batting .524 with six home runs in his last six games. The lefty first baseman is not the only one who has shaken out of a mid-season funk to become a key component in the Nationals' offense. Bryce Harper has raised his season average 12 points in nine games since august 28 while slugging five home runs in the process.
Ian Desmond and Jayson Werth appear to have both overcome significant early season injuries and appear to be hitting their stride as October approaches. Throughout most of the season, the overall play of Desmond has raised his stock throughout the league, earning him a deserving All Star game selection. His production with men on base; more importantly with runners in scoring position is a key reason Washington started the season so strong.
While the power numbers are not there, Werth has been a solid bat in the lineup, maintaining a solid .300 batting average since returning from a season-threatening wrist injury. His ability to take pitches has made him an unorthodox but very productive lead off hitter while also being a solid locker room presence for his young teammates. At present, both Desmond and Werth have been bothered by minor hamstring issues. While neither player is considered to be a long-term injury risk, the ability to provide ample rest over the next few weeks should be enough to help these key players mend.
Keeping the players sharp, healthy, and rested will be a careful balance that manager Davey Johnson will have as a priority as the regular season draws to a close. The Washington bullpen has been as close to "lights out" as a team can get, but the unit has logged many appearances. Such a workload could put the end of game relievers in jeopardy of wearing out. With a comfortable lead in the standings, it is time to consider letting up some on their frequency of use.
Ryan Zimmerman has been solid at the plate since late June and steady with the glove all season for the Nationals, but his occasional errant throws are a small reason for concern. Ironically it is the routine throws of late that have been problematic, more so than the difficult plays. While the recent wild throws do not appear to have hurt his confidence, it is clear that his mechanics are a bit off. With the magnitude of October games heightened to a level never before seen by Zimmerman, his confidence in making plays consistently will be key in the team's playoff success.
Michael Morse has been bothered by a sore thumb over the pace couple of weeks and has been in and out of the lineup. Getting "The Beast" healthy for the postseason can only help build an even more formidable lineup, so additional days off would be recommended. A healthy Morse provides another bat in the lineup capable of going deep at any time, putting additional pressure on opposing pitchers. Lest fans forget Morse had a breakout season in 2011, batting .303 with 31 home runs and 95 runs batted in. While his numbers this season fell off from his career best output, his presence in the lineup is greatly valued.
Being a fan of the Expos/ Nationals since the mid-1970s, I have only had a couple of occasions where I felt my team had something to play for. The annual September ritual of assessing another wave of young talent with hopes of a better tomorrow has now been replaced with anticipation for a possible World Series title. Through thick and thin I have remained steadfast in my belief that the team was leveraging draft choices as compensation for another poor season and building towards greater success. This season, witnessing the fruits of the team's labor gives me greater hope that this decade of Washington baseball will include many championship runs along the way.
Scott Duhaime is a fan of the Washington Nationals (formerly Montreal Expos) for over 30 years. His professional career includes a solid foundation of analytics that contributes to a better appreciation of player and team contributions.
Follow Scott on Twitter: @Scott_Duhaime
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