This four game series with the Braves loomed large on the Nationals’ calendars since April. It meant a chance for redemption; a chance to put a little distance between themselves and Atlanta in a tight three-team race for the NL East crown; and, more than anything, it meant a chance to gauge where, exactly, the Nationals stood as a team.
Coming into this series, the Nats had lost 5 of 6 against Atlanta. No one on the team may have said it openly, but the Braves had to be in the Nationals’ heads. If Washington really wanted to make a run to the playoffs and claim dominance over the division, they would have to turn that story around. Even taking 3 of 4 from San Francisco on the road would mean little if the Nats came back home to be swept by their division rival.
Now, the series has come and gone. After dropping the first two games in disappointing fashion, the Nats managed to take the back half of the series and earn a split. Each game may have had its own individual nuances, but viewed as a whole, there’s a couple of things to take away from this series. Here’s a look at what we learned.
Nationals’ Rotation Solid, Improving: This series was a mixed bag of results for the Nationals’ starting pitching. Tanner Roark managed to salvage a win in spite of having to labor through 5.1 innings Sunday; Strasburg (6 IP) was given a no decision after some late inning heroics (even though the game was still lost); and Jordan Zimmermann (7 IP) picked up a loss mainly due to the offense being nonexistent. The only dominating performance was Fister, who pitched 8 innings of shutout baseball on Saturday.
The important takeaway here is less in terms of the staff ERA, and more in terms of its ability to go deep into games. For the season, four of the five starters are averaging at least 6 innings per start: Zimmermann (6.08); Strasburg (6.25); Roark (6.31); and Fister (6.41). Gio, at 5.56 innings/start, is the lone exception, but injuries certainly factor into that, as well as a limited sample size.
This means the starters are eating innings, and keeping the bullpen, which leads the majors in ERA at 2.54, out of games. It’s a small facet of the game, but it’s something that will matter come September. If the starters continue to pitch like this, the bullpen will be fresh down the stretch.
Offense Still Wildly Inconsistent: Look no further than this series for proof of how all-over-the-map the Nats’ offense has been this season. In the first game, they couldn’t muster a single run, and in the second, if it hadn’t been for a two-run HR in the bottom of the 9th by Anthony Rendon, they would have scored only two in that game. The second half of the series was a different story. The Nats scored early, and then used momentum and pitching to keep the Braves at a safe distance.
This entire season for the Nats’ bats has been an exercise in mediocrity. They rank in the middle of the National League in most important offensive categories: 8th in runs and OPS; 9th in average; 11th in home runs and steals. In short, the Nats are lousy at getting on base, lousy at driving in runs, and lousy at manufacturing offense.
It’s hard to point to a single culprit; after all, this is a team where Adam LaRoche leads in batting average at just over .300. But it’s hard to ignore Denard Span‘s issues: he’s a streaky hitter that doesn’t get on base enough. That’s not what you want from your lead-off man. The offense has been as hot-and-cold as Denard’s bat, which means when Harper returns, an interesting decision will have to be made about what to do in center field and in the top spot in the order.
Conclusion: There’s obviously still work to be done. The Nationals hold a very slim lead in the NL East at the moment, and there’s still a long way to go in the season. But after the way this year (and this series) started against the Braves, the Nationals have to feel like they’ve conquered at least some of their Atlanta demons. It may not have been a sweep, but in the District, a split has never felt so good.
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