As the Washington Nationals begin their annual stretch of interleague match-ups, it seems like a decent time to check back and break down how the Nats have done this season against teams in the only three divisions they should be playing against: the National League ones. (In case it wasn’t obvious, I am not a fan of interleague play and never have been, but that is a topic for another day.)
Roughly a third of the way through the season, the Nationals sit at at 32-23, a game ahead of Atlanta in a tightly-packed race in the National League East. Despite a slew of injuries, Washington has used a stellar pitching staff from top to bottom to overcome some of the deficiencies the everyday lineup has suffered. A 14-4 start got the Nats off well and the team has been basically treading water since then, playing right around .500 baseball. Of all the splits to be found while analyzing the team’s performance thus far, Washington’s 14-8 record against fellow NL East teams is one of the most encouraging.
Division games are always the most important. There are more of them, of course, and every time you win one you guarantee that at least one team you’re fighting against loses that night. These games tend to be a little more emotional as well, as the frequency with which you see these opponents can certainly create some healthy dislike. A positive sign for the Nats going forward then is that the team has saved its best baseball of the season thus far for its NL East brethren. The team batting average of .250 is the highest against any division this season, while the team ERA of 2.84 is the lowest. Over the 22 games Washington has three shutouts and has won six of the eight series against the division. Obviously, continuing this kind of production intra-division will be key for the Nationals chances to be playing meaningful baseball into September.
At the same time, though, contenders also need to be able to beat the teams they are supposed to beat, and at least on paper, there should be a fair amount of those teams in the NL Central and West. For every strong Dodgers club out west you have an equally struggling Padres team, just as for every solid Cincinnati team in the Central there is a corresponding Cubs team failing to make noise. However, the Nationals success and standing in the league’s strongest division hasn’t translated into domination of the so-called “weaker” teams.
In 19 games against the Central, Washington sits at 12-7, certainly respectable when taking into account the team has taken two series from the Reds, the division leaders. It is surprising Pittsburgh that has given the Nats problems, winning two of three in Pittsburgh and splitting a pair of games at Nats Park. For all the supposed differences in strength in the two divisions, the Nats numbers look remarkably similar against Central opponents — a .245 batting average, just under one home run per game, and an ERA of 3.18, all very much in line with the season numbers.
If there is any improvement to be made, it would have to be against West division teams. Admittedly, the sample size is smaller here as the Nats have only faced three of the five teams out west so far, and the mitigating circumstances of travel should not be ignored. But so far Washington has just a 5-6 record against NL West teams, with a team batting average of a paltry .202. A lot of this can be traced back to the rough weekend in Los Angeles that saw Washington swept out of town and shackled by Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley and Chris Capuano. Take that series out and the Nats have two series wins and a split against the other NL West teams on the schedule, but injuries such as the ones the Nats were dealing with at that time are part of baseball, things every club has to deal with. It wasn’t as if the Nats have been overmatched either, as the pitchers have still posted an ERA of 3.00 against the NL West, but it will always be hard to overcome a hot pitching staff — as most Nats opponents have learned this season.