Aug 21, 2014; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals center fielder Denard Span (2) is doused by water after scoring the winning run against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the ninth at Nationals Park. The Nationals won 1-0. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
In many ways, it’s a lot easier to write about the negatives than it is the positives. What areas need improvement? Where did the Nationals seemingly fail this week? Oh, if only our crummy team could do (fill in the blank).
How do you discuss a team that won 10 in a row, tying the team record, and twelve of thirteen? Five of those games were walk offs, including five in six games, and Sunday the team came back from down 5-0 to paste the Giants 14-6. In Sunday’s game, the team scored six runs on eight hits in the sixth inning, then in the eighth they scored another five helped by a Bryce Harper blast and this Danny Espinosa bomb. Seven of the ten games were won by a single run, and if anyone felt secure when the bullpen (collectively) trotted out for the ninth inning then they quieted the doubt by believing in the magic. Maybe the Nats gained only 2 games on the equally hot Atlanta Braves, but a 10-game winning streak certainly shortens the season and an eight game lead brings postseason realizations that much closer.
If the Nats do make the postseason, and according to ESPN’s standings page the odds now are at 99.5%, one of the reasons why will be the huge improvement in play the team is now receiving at second with Asdrubal Cabrera. Weekly he makes a huge defensive play (this week making this ridiculous no-look throw to first or how about this sliding play to retire Angel Pagan), but his bat has been equally as important. This week he batted .273/.407/.545, and he hit another home run, a bases-clearing double, and if there’s a player on this team that plays the gaps better than he does I haven’t seen it. Much like Denard Span, Cabrera looks like he just guides the ball wherever he likes, mostly the opposite field gap. Of course, every other at-bat seems to end with a weak grounder to first, but I’m nitpicking at that point.
Also key to the Nats postseason aspirations is the health of Jayson Werth. Werth returned last Sunday, had two huge at-bats to aid the team’s comeback against the Pirates, and this week he greeted Tim Hudson with this line drive home run. He hit .423/.484/.615 with two doubles, five runs scored, and seven RBIs. He hasn’t shown the power of year’s past, and some of that has to be attributed to his ongoing shoulder ailments, but for the season his OBP is .379 with a walk rate of 11.3% just slightly below his career average. On Sunday, against Juan Gutierrez, he worked a 13-pitch walk by repeatedly fouling off tough pitches. He won’t hit 20 home runs this year, but he’s still a viable threat in front of Adam LaRoche.
Also having big weeks were Anthony Rendon who hit .304/.448/.391 and scored seven runs and Span who hit .276/.344/.379 and scored five runs and stole two bases. Now, finally, I can say that Span has set a career high in stolen bases with 27 on the season. His K% of 9.9 is also at a career low, and his 78 runs scored on the season is currently eighth in the NL. Span is a ways behind the MLB leader in runs scored (tied with Brian Dozier actually) Rendon. For a guy who saw just 98 games last season, Rendon is having a pretty phenomenal season. He’s tied for fifth in the NL in fWAR, is in the top 10 in doubles and triples, and 13th with 68 RBIs. He also plays a very good third base.
Harper had a pretty great week too, recording a hit in all but one of the games and having three games with multiple hits. For the week he hit .370/.393/.519, and over the last two weeks he’s hit .333/.377/.542 with three home runs and nine RBIs. Maybe all that doom and gloom talk of how he was struggling can quiet now. Perhaps he just needed reps. In the Ian Desmond 20/20 watch, he stole two bags to bring his season total to 16. He also has 79 RBIs, which leads all Major League short stops.
As a team, the Nats hit .298/.378/.455 with seven home runs, 12 doubles, two triples and eight stolen bases.
I’m going to discuss the pitching in reverse order, beginning with the struggles of the bullpen. It was pretty ugly over the last seven games with Tyler Clippard blowing two games against Arizona and a complete meltdown in the San Francisco opener. Clippard did not look comfortable closing games. Ok. As an eighth-inning specialist he’s lights out, but maybe closing games isn’t his thing. The Giants game worries me not a bit other than Jerry Blevins struggling of late. In the last two months, he’s allowed runs in five of his 17 appearances, which equates to a 4.68 ERA in 16 2/3 innings.
Other than those issues, though, the bullpen pitched pretty well. After Stephen Strasburg struggled on Sunday, the relievers kept the game close enough for this to happen, and I can’t say enough good things about the work Craig Stammen has done this year. His 3.56 ERA doesn’t look all that impressive, but he has come in and helped keep games close, or at least from completely getting out of hand, and for a guy who’s seen perhaps once or twice a week, he’s been a big part of the club.
Rafael Soriano earned two wins. Last week, I mentioned Soriano’s struggles, so to be fair, let me say that he looked much better this week. His slider had more bite, he was keeping the ball down, and he threw with confidence.
For the most part, it’s difficult to find fault with starting pitching that allowed three or fewer earned runs in five of the seven starts this week. Doug Fister got touched for four earned on Friday, and his ERA suffered for it. It jumped all the way to 2.38. Jordan Zimmermann had two solid outings, allowing three against Arizona but two of those were on an eighth inning home run when he was tiring. On Saturday, the two runs he allowed came via this Hunter Pence home run, and if you can find fault with a pitcher throwing the ball within the vicinity of the plate, then I suppose Zimmermann is guilty of serving one up. Seriously. How did Pence even come close to hitting that ball?
Stephen Strasburg’s up and down season continues, and this week was a perfect example of how the year has gone. Against Arizona, a sub .500 team, he throws brilliantly, allowing just three hits in eight innings while striking out four. Against San Francisco, a possible playoff opponent, he allows five earned runs on eight hits in four innings. Strasburg has been particularly prone to allowing home runs this year, a career high 21 so far with the two allowed on Sunday. When you throw as hard as he does, homers are going to happen of course, and judging by his career, this season is probably just an aberration.
Similar to how I mentioned with Tanner Roark last week, Strasburg’s innings are starting to climb, and he’ll soon surpass his career high by early September. This isn’t panic. It’s just an observation with mild concern based on recent performances. In his career, over an extremely small sample size, Strasburg has pitched better in September and October. Will the Nats see that Strasburg late this year?
As a whole, the relievers had an ERA of 4.50 in 18 innings, with over half of those runs coming in the Giants opener. The starters allowed a 2.87 ERA in 47 innings of work, striking out 29. What’s amazing about this group is that over the last 30 days, the starters have a 2.64 ERA and have allowed 155 hits in 187 1/3 innings. The Nats are second in the Majors in team ERA and first in FIP, fWAR, BB/9, and HR/9, so, all the negatives above should be seen through a prism of absolute dominance.
We are spoiled.
In the week ahead the Nats take to the road to play three against Philadelphia and then three at Seattle. Looking at the projected matchups, the Nats won’t have to see Felix Hernandez, though they will face both Cole Hamels and Hisashi Iwakuma.