With the baseball season entering its final two months, the Washington Nationals remain atop the National League East division. Back in early April, I assessed the National League landscape and predicted the outcome of the 162-game marathon that comprises the Major League baseball season. At the time I predicted that the Nationals would win 83 games and fall just short of a playoff berth; expecting perennial division power Philadelphia Phillies to ride their stellar pitching to another division crown. Much of my prediction was based on an offense that was lacking consistent production and a youthful pitching staff that has not yet gone through a full season intact. Little did I and many others realize at the time that the team would ascend the division standings based on their pitching dominance would be the unproven youth of the Washington Nationals.
Throughout the season, Washington has made true believers in many and validated the faith that some of us have had in this team; one that has been building towards a long-term place among the best teams in the league. The Nationals have taken advantage of their prior lowly standing to draft and develop some of baseball's best young talent. After following this team through several years of mediocrity, Washington has validated my faith and begun to make believers
Despite experiencing slumps and injuries throughout the season, the Nationals continue to find ways to win. Washington continues to benefit from the league's best earned run average while the offense has begun to pick up their game. In the past 26 games, the Nationals have averaged 5.9 runs per game; an increase of 2.1 over the production through the season's first 71 games and elevating their wins above .500 to 18. The team currently ranks second in the National League with a differential of 78 runs this season.
In the final series of their recent home stand, the Nationals lost the first two games against second place Atlanta Braves; bringing their division lead to a slim 1-1/2 games. After blowing a 9-0 lead in Game 1 and being shutout in Game 2, the Nationals were teetering on the verge of a slide that would drop them out of first place for the first time since May 21.
With a young building team facing adversity; the Nationals responded in a way that demonstrates true championship grit; winning the final two of the four game series to re-establish themselves as the team to beat in the NL East. On Saturday, former rotation regular John Lannan returned from his season-long exile in the minor leagues to pitch seven strong innings in a 5-2 victory; the most meaningful win to date for the Nationals in 2012. The team continued their winning ways, sweeping the New York Mets on the road to extend their current winning streak to five games.
The team's success has come at a price; with team leader Ian Desmond expected to miss several weeks with a torn oblique muscle. Desmond has admirably played through an oblique strain for weeks; providing clutch hits to continue the Nationals' winning ways. His absence in the lineup will be felt, as his team second-best 17 home runs and 53 runs batted in have come in critical stages of the season. While Desmond is on the mend, the recent power surge of Ryan Zimmerman and Danny Espinosa will be counted on even more to keep the team afloat as the games grow in importance.
Zimmerman has been one of baseball's hottest hitters since the All-Star break; with a batting average of .421 and OPS of 1.292. For the month of July, Zimmerman has slugged nine home runs and hit .388 over a course of 21 games that saw him raise his average from .234 to its current .273. Espinosa had an extremely productive month of July as well; riding an 11-game hitting streak to bat .359 for the month with a slugging percentage of .603. The production increase from this duo will be most welcome additions to the production provided all season by Desmond, Adam LaRoche and rookie Bryce Harper. Michael Morse has proven to be a force to contend with after a late start to the 2012 season due to injury; while utility outfielder Roger Bernadina has become one of baseball's most productive pinch hitters this season and has emerged as a more valuable component in the team's outfield rotation.
The team will have critical decisions ahead which may impact their World Series hopes. The planned shut down of Stephen Strasburg at 160 innings is being reconsidered and possible extended based on how well the team's ace feels and performs. While Strasburg is not expected to make it through the entire regular season and the playoffs, his possible extension of innings are indications that team management realizes the opportunity that 2012 presents. With the performance of Lannan last weekend, the team may decide not to pursue prominent trade options at the July 31 deadline. Lannan is a proven starter who can easily supplement the rotation in the season's final month. The bullpen will be bolstered by the return of Drew Storen, who has missed most of the season with an elbow injury. His performance will help reduce the heavy reliance on Tyler Clippard to carry the load as the team's closer and eliminate the need to look for trade options for improvement.
In addition, the progress of Jayson Werth's return will determine whether the team needs to add a significant bat to the lineup or a glove to the outfield corps. Desmond is expected to heal in time for the team's home stretch and will bring a solid glove and a potent bat back in the lineup. With the duo of Danny Espinosa and Steve Lombardozzi handling the middle infield duties in the interim, the team will not suffer from a defensive standpoint but will lose some pop from the lineup.
The team is currently on pace for 96 wins and would still finish with a respectable 90 wins if they play .500 ball over the remaining 65 games of the season. If the aforementioned players can return from injury and into prominence, this team will be well positioned to make a strong run for the playoffs. Despite the outcome of the season's final two months and possible playoffs, the Nationals have played tremendous baseball this season; raising expectations for many fans and validating the faith by of those of us who have patiently waited for this renaissance to happen.
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
Sources:Washington Nationals' Mid-Term Grades: Fan's Take
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