There have been several storylines that have garnered headlines in the early stages of the Major League Baseball season. To those that seldom look beyond the major headlines; take note that the Washington Nationals are in first place in the National League East.
Winners of seven of their past eight games, the 9-3 Nationals are living up to the long standing "potential" tag that has hovered over this franchise these past few seasons. Benefiting from a careful blend of youth and experience, Washington is accomplishing this early success through some basic baseball fundamentals; solid pitching, sure fielding and timely hitting.
Looking in greater detail at the key success factors for Washington; fans should look to the quality pitching that has been on display this season. The starting pitching has been impressive thus far; with the dominant opening day dominant performance by young phenom Stephen Strasburg; coupled with the impressive contributions from newcomers Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson, along with young stud right hander Jordan Zimmermann; the starting pitching staff has been nothing short of dominant. To date, the starters have registered a microscopic ERA of 1.70, a WHIP of 0.88, and a strikeout ratio of 8.5 per nine innings. Thus far, the starters have surrendered only two home runs in the first 12 games of the season.
The starters are not the only ones responsible for the pitching success. When games are handed to the bullpen, the relievers have answered the call; with a strikeout ratio of 11.3 per nine innings to go along with a 2.40 ERA and four saves in five opportunities. What makes the bullpen's performance more impressive is the fact that planned closer Drew Storen is out with an elbow injury. Last season, Storen saved 43 games for the 80-81 Nationals and was expected to have continued success in 2012.
The pitching acquisitions made by general manager Mike Rizzo have solidified a young rotation and minimized the impact of Storen's absence. Veteran closer Brad Lidge has stepped in to provide stability to the young relief corps. Lidge has had five scoreless appearances to counter his one poor outing; where he blew a late inning save opportunity to the Cincinnati Reds. More will be expected of Lidge than originally planned as a result of Storen's injury and thus far he has given indications that he is up for the job.
Gio Gonzalez has filled in the role of second starter and overcame a tough opening performance for Washington and pitched 14 scoreless innings in his last two starts. Based on his complete game win in his last appearance, Edwin Jackson is proven to be a relative bargain as a surprise free agent signing.
The more prominent names on the staff are not the only ones producing for Washington; as relievers Craig Stammen and lefty Tom Gorzelanny have provided stout middle inning relief. The duo has combined to allow just one earned run in 12 innings of work; although the combination is responsible for two of the team's three losses this season. Their continued production can only make the pitching staff more formidable as the season progresses and gives manager Davey Johnson several options in the middle innings of the game.
The pitching has been of greater importance to Washington and lessened the burden on the offense; who has again struggled to score runs this season. The team has seen the emergence of shortstop Ian Desmond as a surprisingly effective lead-off hitter; but the middle of the line-up can use some reinforcements. A promising sign thus far has been the production provided by two disappointments from last season. First baseman Adam LaRoche; who missed most of last season with a torn labrum in his shoulder has started the season with a hot bat, leading the team in home runs and slugging percentage; while last season's mega-millionaire free agent Jayson Werth has shaken off a rough opening series to hit in nine straight games, batting .400 (16 for 40) during that span.
Chad Tracy has proven to be a terrific find for Washington; contributing as the primary pinch-hitter and producing when needed. The addition of utility fielder Mark DeRosa has also helped the Nationals bench; but DeRosa has had to fill in more often with the early season injury to Michael Morse and has struggled with inconsistency at the plate.
All star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman has yet to produce at the plate, but that has not hindered his solid glove work at the hot corner. His improvement and the expected production from last season's team home run leader Morse will go a long way in increasing the pitchers' margin of error and relieving the burden on the pitching staff as a whole to suppress the opponents' offensive attack.
Although there is many positive aspects to cite on this team, there are still areas to monitor as the weeks and months progress. The platoon of Roger Bernadina and Rick Ankiel in centerfield for a second straight season may provide solid defense; but the lack of consistent production at the plate could be looked upon as an area to improve. With young slugger Bryce Harper waiting in the wings, the team may not have to look far for improvements to their outfield produciton.
Tyler Clippard has shown signs of the dominant reliever from last season but has also looked shaky at times; surrendering runs in two of his outings, including an extra-inning game against Cincinnati where he surrendered three runs in the loss. Although he has nopt been as consistently dominant thus far, Clippard should be counted upon to round into form as the spring turns to summer.
Where a major sports championship has eluded this city for decades, the Nationals are well positioned to bring playoff excitement in the fall and establish themselves as a team to be reckoned with for years. In our Nation's Capitol; where optimism is not all too common, the play of the Washington Nationals has elevated fan interest and hope for a very successful season.
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.
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- Washington Nationals
- Gio Gonzalez
- Edwin Jackson