If not for the Chicago Cubs, the Washington Nationals’ resurgence would have been the biggest story in the National League. Just one year after an embarrassing collapse, which featured the best player on the club getting choked by Jonathan Papelbon and the dismissal of manager Matt Williams, the Nationals lived up to expectations by capturing the NL East title.
From the start of the season, this was the Nationals club many expected the last couple seasons. Washington sat in first place for an incredible 172 days. The farthest they ever fell behind the division lead was just a half a game, and that came all the back on May 11. They managed to do so despite multiple injuries to Stephen Strasburg and a massive decline in production from reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper.
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Now that the Nationals are back in October, they’ll need to focus on moving past the National League Division Series for the first time since the franchise relocated to D.C. If they can manage that, the Nationals will be one step closer to winning the first World Series in franchise history.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at five reasons the Nationals can make history in 2016.
NO BRYCE HARPER, NO PROBLEM
After putting up Bondsian numbers en route to his first MVP award, Bryce Harper’s followup has to be seen as a disappointment. The 23-year-old has hit just .244/.375/.444, with 24 home runs in 614 plate appearances. There have been rumors Harper has played injured throughout the season, but the outfielder has denied those stories.
Despite that, the Nationals offense has rolled. Free-agent addition Daniel Murphy carried over his playoff surge to the regular season, Wilson Ramos has produced All-Star numbers during his walk year and Anthony Rendon has returned to form.
Even with Harper clearly underperforming, the team still ranks eighth in the league with 734 runs scored and sixth in offensive WAR.
Max Scherzer turned in yet another phenomenal season, and looks like the leading candidate to take home the NL Cy Young award. His 2.82 ERA and 267 strikeouts gives the Nationals a chance against any Game 1 starter. If healthy, Stephen Strasburg would combine with Scherzer to create one of the most fearsome one-two punches of any playoff team. Through 147 2/3 innings, Strasburg has a 3.60 ERA with 183 strikeouts. He was well on his way toward having the best season of his career if not for multiple injuries throughout the season. The last of which, an elbow issue, could keep him from returning in time for the postseason.
Even if Strasburg can’t go in October there’s still hope. That’s because …
TANNER ROARK IS BETTER THAN YOU THINK
Tanner Roark was the forgotten man last season, making just 12 starts after the team signed Scherzer during the offseason. After Jordan Zimmermann left, Roark reclaimed his starting spot, and hasn’t missed a beat. Over 200 1/3 innings, Roark has posted a 2.70 ERA with solid peripherals. By Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR (bWAR), Roark actually rates as the second best pitcher in the NL this season, just behind Scherzer.
TREA TURNER IS INCREDIBLE
Despite the fact that he’s only received 295 plate appearances this season, Trea Turner is going to get some down-ballot NL Rookie of the Year votes. He’s been that good. In 66 games, Turner has posted a fantastic .336/.356/.558 slash line, with 12 home runs and 27 steals. On top of that, he’s given the club a legitimately terrifying weapon at the top of the lineup, something the Nationals lacked early in the season.
Previous playoff experience either matters immensely or doesn’t matter at all depending on what you believe. If the Nationals do suffer another early postseason exit, they can’t hide behind their age or inexperience anymore. Many members of the 2016 club have been with the team since 2012 (Jayson Werth, Harper, Strasburg, among others), the first year this core made it to October.
On top of that, manager Dusty Baker has had success in the postseason before. And while some will criticize his in-game strategies, there’s no doubt the Nationals were better-prepared this season. Even if Baker makes a baffling, crippling decision that costs the Nationals a shot at glory, it won’t be worse than anything the team experienced under Williams the past few years.
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