Aug 3, 2014; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg (37) walks off the field between innings during the game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Nationals Park. The Nationals won 4-0. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports
Oh, those wacky Nationals. Just when you abandon all hope, gnash your teeth at repeated bullpen failings, and shake your fists as they lose ugly to Philadelphia before somehow failing to solve the mystery of Roberto Hernandez for the second time this season, you suddenly find yourself pulled back in as Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg toss consecutive shutouts, reminding the baseball world that maybe the A’s and Tigers received all the press this week with their splashy deadline deals, but the Nats rotation is just as dangerous, top to bottom, and can match up with anyone.
The Nats somehow existed in a very odd place this week. They were close enough to 5-2 and taking a 5 ½ game lead in the East that it seems like a huge failure that they ended up 3-4, but they were also close enough to 2-5 with Drew Storen nearly providing a second blown save in Tanner Roark’s start against the Marlins that limping through at 3-4 is fine. Maybe not fine. Let’s call it happy to be over.
Monday’s collapse against the Marlins was a gut punch. Losing games like that hurt worse than winning feels good. After being down 6-0, the Marlins scored seven unanswered, including four in the ninth, but even Storen’s strange encore was hopefully just an aberration. The Nats bullpen has collectively blown nine saves this season, good for third fewest in the NL behind the Dodgers and Padres.
Before griping about the pen, I’d like to revisit the weeks put forth by both Zimmermann and Strasburg. Zimmermann allowed two earned runs across two starts, getting the no decision in the Marlins debacle and shutting down Philadelphia. Strasburg, after allowing four earned in back-to-back starts (same holds true for Zimmermann entering the week) before Tuesday’s hard luck loss to Miami, his game against the Phillies on Sunday where he struck out 10 in seven innings while allowing only three hits was the first time all season he hasn’t allowed a run in a game. Seeing that he only allowed one run against Miami, maybe now is the time he asserts himself as staff ace.
The starters, once again, pitched great. They threw 45 2/3 innings with an ERA of 2.17. Other than Gio Gonzalez’s start against Philadelphia, the starters tore through the NL East like it was personal. Batters hit just .196 against them, and the starters finished with a WHIP of 0.92. Other than each non-Gonzalez starter throwing “only” seven innings in each of their starts, what else could they do?
The bullpen, however, wasn’t quite as effective. Other than Tyler Clippard, the relievers pitched one adventurous inning after another until 16 innings later they had a 7.88 ERA with a WHIP of 1.63. Batters hit .329 against them this week, .431 on balls put in play, which is akin to lobbing the ball to the plate underhanded. It was like a weekend trip to Vegas as nearly every reliever doubled-down with hits allowed to innings pitched. This week isn’t exactly the exception to the rule either. Over the last 30-days, the relievers have allowed 66 hits in 63 innings with an ERA of 4.29, bad enough for ninth worst in the NL over that time.
In the hitting department, there’s good news! Anthony Rendon hit a home run on Saturday, which is pretty incredible. Up until that point the Nats hadn’t hit a home run since July 22nd against Colorado, a span of 10 games. The homerless streak was the longest since the team moved to D.C.
When your team fails to hit a home run in 10 straight games, the most important player on your team soon becomes the player that gets on bases, regardless of how, which basically makes Denard Span MVP. I wrote about his great July, but he’s carried that over to August without missing a beat. In three games, he’s already 5-for-11, with two stolen bases and three runs scored, and his 23 stolen bases on the years puts him three shy of tying his career high. Some fool once suggested sitting Span, and since that article ran he’s hit .375/.462/.411 with 18 walks, 10 stolen bases, and 21 runs scored. Span has now reached base by either walk or hit in 29 straight. According to the Nationals PR department, his active streak is tied for third longest in Nationals history. I’m at the point that I’m just biding my time until 2020 so that I can offer to run his presidential campaign.
Other than Span, Rendon drove in six and scored six runs this week, and he currently leads the Major Leagues in runs scored with 77. He also batted .300/.344/.533. Bryce Harper hit the ball better this week too. Overall he batted .292/.346/.333. His last at-bat Sunday may have resulted in a strikeout, but he fought off some tough pitches from flame-throwing lefty Jake Diekman, extending the AB long enough for a wild pitch to score Jayson Werth who earlier came within a foot from hitting his first home run since July 13th.
While the results with his bat didn’t exactly make you forget about Danny Espinosa, newly acquired Asdrubal Cabrera made a couple of phenomenal plays in the field in the Philadelphia series (here and here). In his first game with the club on Friday, he hit the ball well off of Hernandez with nothing but a lineout double-play to show for it. It was that kind of game. Lots of line drives right into fielders’ mitts. The guy can play, though, and his pickup at the deadline for Zach Walters was another solid deal by Rizzo.
Instead of having to choose between Espinosa’s glove or Kevin Frandsen’s bat, Rizzo decided to get a player that can do both. Cabrera might not have helped all that much with the team line of .242/.314/.312, but his power will be a nice addition to Nationals Park if, you know, the team still allows extra-base hits.
In the week ahead, the Nats play a makeup game against Baltimore, three against the Mets, and finish out the week against the struggling Braves. The Nats see Kevin Gausman on Monday, a tall right-hander who hits mid-90s with ease, and then they get the Mets Zach Wheeler and Jacob deGrom, two of their young right-handers who have both been on fire recently. Wheeler has allowed precisely one earned run in five of his last six starts (he allowed two in the other) while deGrom just came off winning co-National League Player of the Week and spent July embarrassing hitters.
Meanwhile, the Braves have lost six in a row with Sunday’s loss particularly excruciating. After tying the game late, twice, they finally lost in 10. It won’t get any easier for the Braves, for in their next start they get to see Felix Hernandez in Seattle. Jason Heyward has been destroying the ball lately for Atlanta, as too has Dan Uggla’s replacement Tommy La Stella. The Braves struggles have helped open up a 3 ½ game lead for the Nats despite their best efforts to keep Atlanta close.