Nationals, Storen close in on NL East


Sep 8, 2014; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals relief pitcher Drew Storen (22) high fives catcher Jose Lobaton (59) after defeating the Atlanta Braves 2-1 at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

After a week where the Nats finished 5-2 and the Braves went 1-5, including being swept by the worst team in baseball, the race for the East is over. The Nats are up 10 ½ with 15 to play and their magic number is four. Am I a little disappointed that the team can’t finish the season with 100 wins (no matter how unlikely the possibility)? A little. What can I say? I wanted to see the first 100 win season in franchise history.

Five more wins gives the team only the sixth 90-win season in franchise history, but I’m still pulling for an improbable 17-game winning streak to bring the win total to 99, setting a new franchise record at least.

The next few weeks are critical to the team’s postseason success even with the East title secured. How critical? If the Nats own the NL’s best record they get to avoid the possibility of having to play both the Cardinals and the Dodgers (how the standings are now). In a five-game series, do the Nats really want to see Adam Wainwright or Clayton Kershaw twice? What about Lance Lynn who has been fantastic this season and has shut the Nats down in both starts against them? I think I’d rather see the wild card winner and hope the Cards/Dodgers series goes the full five. The Cardinals probably have the easiest schedule left of the three, but the Nats get to finish against the mediocre East.

A week ago, when I discussed Anthony Rendon’s bona fides for NL MVP, he was a fringe candidate at best. Top 10? If the voters were feeling generous. Top 5? Only an extreme optimist would hope for that. In the span of a week, however, Rendon went from fringe to a leading candidate. Against the Mets, he was 10-for-15 entering Sunday, doubled in his first at-bat, and set the Nats team record for hits in a four-game series. For the week, he hit .500/.556/.833 with two doubles, two home runs, drove in four, and scored another 7, taking his total for runs to a Major League leading 108. His slash line went from .280/.341/.464 to .289/.350/.479 in six games, at the end of the season, after 137 games played and 554 official at-bats. With the Nats battling for the best record in the NL, this late season surge is all the more important and leaves a lasting impression.

All I’m saying is this MVP thing hasn’t been decided just yet.

Ian Desmond stole three bases, becoming just the fourth shortstop in MLB history with three 20/20 seasons (Hanley Ramirez, Jimmy Rollins, and Alex Rodriguez were the others) and only the third (Ramirez and Rodriguez) to have done it three years in a row. Desmond currently leads all shortstops in home runs and RBI, and you can even make the argument that this has been a down year with his career high K% and career low batting line of .252/.309/.418. For the week he hit .348/.423/.478 while driving in five. He also destroys umbrellas when he grows tired of hitting baseballs really, really hard.

Denard Span eclipsed 30 stolen bases for the first time in his career. He’s four runs away from tying his personal best. Adam LaRoche set a new personal best by working the Mets pitchers for four walks in Friday’s game. Of course, that was the game where Jenrry Mejia celebrated a little too excessively for the Nats liking and caused the team to run wild on Saturday with lots of serious looks from the Nats hitters.

Bryce Harper continued his hot hitting by clubbing two home runs this week. Sunday, with the game tied 0-0 in the seventh, Harper decided to sacrifice bunt Desmond to second, which is a perfect opportunity for me to wonder aloud why Harper has a fascination with bunting? Hey, I’m all for a batter having the ability to bunt, and I think it’s admirable that he wants to help the team win, but Harper should never bunt. Ever. Swing the bat, Harper. Wilson Ramos followed with a two-run home run, so it all worked out great, but that doesn’t change the fact that the play was silly with his ability to hammer baseballs. Anyway, for the week, he hit .259/.310/.481 with a very nice sacrifice bunt.

As a team the Nats hit .272/.345/.402 with seven home runs, and, as a fun fact from the MASN stats squad, the Nats have now homered in 19 straight road games, which is tops in the Majors for the season.

Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez were the only starters to allow more than two earned runs in any start this week, with Strasburg throwing really well early against the Braves, with his fastball hitting the upper 90s and change up looking sharp. Gonzalez gave up three early runs to the Mets, pitched well afterwards, and nearly went seven innings for the first time since August 21.

Jordan Zimmermann earned two wins this week to bring his season total to 12. On Sunday, he wasn’t particularly sharp, but he shut the Mets down when he had to and tossed 6 2/3 innings of shutout ball. Zimmermann may not have all the wins to show for just how good he’s been this year, but he can match up with anyone. On the season, his K/9 is the highest of his career, his BB/9 is the lowest, and both his ERA and FIP are personal bests. I guess if you had to quibble he gets fatigued around the 95-pitch mark (he’s only thrown 100 pitches in a game 10 times this season). He’s still gone 6+ innings in 23 of his 30 starts and in one of those he left because of a biceps cramp.

Doug Fister returned from his two-week struggle to allow just seven hits in 13 innings, winning twice. On Monday, he shut down the Braves, surrendering just two hits in seven innings in a game that was huge for the team. It seems silly now, but say things go differently in that Braves series and Atlanta manages to sweep. The Nats are suddenly up just four with another series against Atlanta looming. So, yeah, that first game was critical for the Nats, and Fister delivered one of his best outings of the season.

Tanner Roark picked up win number 13, allowing two earned runs to the Mets. In a game that could have been bad for the Nats, with Bartolo Colon getting tossed for hitting both Desmond and Jayson Werth post home runs, Roark kept his cool, pitched into the seventh, and earned the win.

The great closer debate has to be considered settled at this point. Drew Storen pitched lights out against Atlanta, earning two saves in the series and striking out the side in the first game. Storen hasn’t allowed a run since August 5th, a span of 16 appearances, including allowing just eight hits in 13 2/3 innings. For the week he recorded three saves, though one of those was with the Nats leading by three.

Collectively, the bullpen tossed 17 1/3 innings with an ERA of 2.08, allowing 15 hits while striking out 20. The starters went 5-2 with an ERA of 2.42, throwing 44 2/3 innings and allowing 39 hits while striking out 34.

The Nats road trip continues in the week ahead with three games in Atlanta and a four-game series against the Marlins. The race for the East is effectively over, but taking two of three in Atlanta ends it officially.