Nationals Enter Break Tied Atop NL East


Jul 13, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Washington Nationals left fielder Ryan Zimmerman (11) reacts in the dugout after hitting an RBI sacrifice fly in the sixth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. The Nationals defeated the Phillies, 10-3. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

You can forgive me my rosy outlook after witnessing Tanner Roark’s return to early season form on Sunday against the Phillies. He hasn’t exactly been his sharpest lately, and in his other start in Philadelphia he was hit around pretty hard. Needless to say, I was worried. I shouldn’t have been. Roark pitched seven great innings, allowing a single run on four hits and reminding everyone why he’s the best #5 starter in baseball and what makes this pitching staff so dangerous: depth. When your #5 carries with him a FIP of 3.43 and an ERA+ of 119, I think your team is going places.

Where few on the team are not going this week is Minneapolis. Even with an impassioned campaign here and elsewhere for Anthony Rendon to win the Fan Vote, the vote went to Anthony Rizzo (also having a fine season) and Rendon was denied. Then, on Friday, Jordan Zimmermann left with a biceps injury, and while Nationals’ fans held their collective breath, it was revealed that the injury was a strain with no structural damage. Taking Zimmermann’s place in the All Star game will be Tyler Clippard, so at least the Nats will be represented, you know, in case they make it to the World Series and the all-important winner of Tuesday’s exhibition should determine who gets home field advantage. If someone could ever make a logical argument for why an All Star game should determine this sort of thing, I’m open to listening. Also, somehow a reliever who’s participated in roughly 5% of the team’s innings should be the one that might determine their postseason fate is mind boggling.

Anyway, moving on.

This week saw the Nats go 3-3, which is okay record-wise, but the team was a few inches away from Adam LaRoche tying the Orioles game on Thursday and could have won the first game in that series with a few timely hits in the ninth. I’m sure everyone wanted better than 1-2 against the O’s, but all three were winnable. The Nats then went into Philadelphia and took two of three, losing the Zimmermann start but receiving strong pitching performances from both Stephen Strasburg and the aforementioned Roark.

Speaking of Strasburg, he returned to form this week with two exceptional starts where he struck out 18 in 12 2/3 innings while allowing four earned runs total. On Saturday he used his changeup to devastating effect, and with his fastball consistently hitting mid-90s, Strasburg might be ready to approach those early season expectations we heaped upon him (I picked him for the Cy Young). At least it looked that way this week anyway. I reserve the right to pretend that last sentence never happened when we see additional rough patches. Doug Fister delivered against the Orioles a much needed solid outing. There was as much energy in that series as I’ve seen for the Nationals in a long time (discussing here the energy in regards to playing another team, not similar to Bryce Harper’s return). After losing the opener ugly in extra innings, if the Nats came out flat on Wednesday this week could have looked drastically different. Fister came through, tossing seven solid innings while allowing only two runs. That the Nats lost the series finale was a disappointment, but it could have been worse.

And if we’re discussing ugly and extras, the way the team came back from blowing Saturday’s game to win in extras says a lot. Matt Williams probably kept Strasburg in too long, again, but losing that game after being up 3-0 would have been demoralizing. You beat teams like the Phillies when you have the opportunity. Limping into the All Star break with a 2-4 record isn’t the way you signal to the NL East that you’ve arrived.

The bullpen struggled this week, but you can attribute much of that to the six runs allowed to Baltimore in extras and Aaron Barrett allowing a couple in mop up duty against the Phils on Sunday afternoon. Craig Stammen allowed five earned runs and two home runs to the Orioles, so if you’re going to have a bad outing do it in grand style. Stammen did not allow a home run to Manny Machado; that honor belonged to Aaron Barrett (and Fister in the second game), but Machado was 8-for-12 in that series, so giving up a couple of homers to him isn’t exactly something to hang your head over. You know who seems to be settling into his bullpen role better of late? That’s right, Ross Detwiler. Detwiler has now allowed a run in only one of his past six outings, which is a big deal considering it seemed like every appearance he was giving up a run or two.

Collectively, the pitching staff tossed 55 innings, allowing 53 hits and 10 walks with 58 strikeouts. Their ERA was 3.76 while surrendering eight home runs. The starters were 2-2 with a 3.44 ERA (see how I lead with the two most useless stats), but in 36 2/3 innings of work they allowed 34 hits while striking out 39. The bullpen was just sort of meh with a 1-1 record and a 4.42 ERA. In 18 1/3 innings, they allowed 19 hits and struck out 19.

With a 3-for-5 outing on Sunday, Rendon completed his argument to be included in Tuesday’s festivities with another stellar week. Rendon finished the week batting .346/.393/.577 with three doubles, a home run, and three RBIs. Rendon would be second on the team in RBIs, four behind team leader Ian Desmond, if it wasn’t for the damage Jayson Werth administered to baseballs across the I-95 Corridor this week. On the week Werth hit .261/.393/.826 good for a 1.219 OPS, but it was the four home runs that were the most impressive. Think about this: Werth hit four home runs in April, two in May and June combined, and so far in July he’s hit six, doubling his season total in 11 games. Equally impressive is that six of those 11 games have been of the multi-hit variety, and in only one of them, the first against the O’s, he hasn’t gotten on base by either a hit or a walk.

Wilson Ramos saw his 14 game hitting streak end on Saturday, but during the streak Ramos batted .377/.421/.566 with four doubles and two home runs. Ramos saw his slash line go from .238/.290/.321 to .292/340/.416, making him a ridiculously overqualified #8 hitter. Sometimes, just for fun, I like to sit back and just ponder the good fortune that the Nats have so many good hitters (really, I’m saying this after all the horrid offense I’ve been subjected to this year) that Ramos bats eighth.

Harper hit his first home run since coming off the disabled list, and he walked a few times. It’s good to see his presence in the lineup even if he’s not hitting. He takes walks, works the counts, and will swing with extreme violence when he sees a pitch to drive. Seriously, what’s not to like? He’ll get his hits in time.

As a team the Nats batted .224/.288/.407 this past week with nine home runs. The nine homers were tied for second most in MLB for the past week. On the season the team has hit 82 home runs, good for sixth in the NL. They are also sixth in the NL in runs scored at 387 and fifth in walks at 289.

While everyone except Clippard will enjoy a long rest, the team will suit up again starting Friday with a three game series against the visiting Brewers.