The Nationals’ greatness was tested once again last weekend against the Baltimore Orioles, and once again they came up just short. But several more positive signs emerged during the 2-1 series loss, and now the team will hit the road for a key stretch of National League East games that will determine exactly where they stand at this point in the season.
Make no mistake about it, the Orioles are a good team. As they showed over the weekend, they are well managed, hit the ball well throughout the order, have solid starters and an excellent bullpen. And as such, they were just a bit better than the Nationals in two of the three games. On Friday, Edwin Jackson and Jake Arrieta turned in stellar performances on the mound, until the bullpens took over, and then the Orioles’ was just a bit better than the Nats’, as Nick Markakis took Ryan Mattheus‘ hanging slider into the upper deck in right field for the game winning homer.
On Saturday, Ross Detwiler turned in his worst starting performance of the year, while Jason Hammel shut the Nats down for the first four innings. The Nationals eventually got to Hammel and came back from a 6-0 deficit against the Orioles’ bullpen to make it 6-5. But they missed opportunities to push the tie run across the plate in the final two innings.
On Sunday, the Nats offense finally, broke out against Baltimore’s best starter so far this year, Wei-Yin Chen, as Stephen Strasburg and Jesus Flores each went deep, and Bryce Harper had two hits and two RBIs to break out of a brief slump. For the series, the Nats outhomered the most powerful team in baseball 4-3 and outscored the Orioles 15-11, but they came up short in two of the three games. On this particular weekend in May, against the team with the best record in baseball, the Nationals were pretty good, but not great.
It’s been said in order to be the best, you have to beat the best, and so far the Nationals haven’t done that this season. They have won most series, but they have dropped high-profile matchups in April against the Dodgers, who had the best record in the National league at the time, and in May against the Orioles. Games in those series and others have turned individual matchups against Matt Kemp, Joey Votto, Andrew McCutchen and Adam Jones. Every one of those players should be an All-Star, and they all have have all beaten the Nationals this season with key home runs, hits, baserunning and defense. At 24-17, the Nats have accomplished some good things this season and exceeded many people’s expectations. Now they have to make the leap from pretty good to great.
For a team whose offense has slumbered for most of the season, Sunday’s 9-3 victory and the last four innings of Saturday’s game are encouraging. Ryan Zimmerman‘s bat finally seems to be coming around. He went 7-for-15 in the series, raising his average from .223 to .257, and hit his first home run since his brief stint on the disabled list. Harper has come though with a clutch hit with men on base. Flores has shown he can be a dependable starting catcher, and backup catcher Carlos Maldonado has shown he can advance runners and take a walk when needed.
Now the team heads out for road games against three of its four division opponents, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Miami. The Phillies are bound to be still stinging from losing two of three games in the “Our Park” series, and Harper showing up Cole Hamels by stealing home after Hamels plunked him. The Braves are the second-highest scoring team in the National League, behind the St. Louis Cardinals, and the third-highest in baseball, another string test for the Nats ‘pitching staff. The Marlins are 14-5 in the month of May and have always been thorns in the Nats’ sides, even before moving into a new ballpark.
In Philadelphia tonight, the Nats will send thier most consistent starter this season, Gio Gonzalez, (5-1, 2.22) against Kyle Kendrick (0-3, 5.96). On Tuesday, Jordan Zimmermann (2-4, 2.58), resumes his seemingly enver ending quest for run support for the Nats, while Washington gets its first look this season at Philly ace Roy Halladay (4-3, 3.22). In the series finale Wednesday, Jackson (1-1, 3.31) will try to put two string starts together for the first time this season, while the Phillies send Hamels (6-1, 2.48) to the mound. Harper and the rest of the Nats’ hitters are surely looking forward to that one.