The Washington Nationals enter play on Tuesday with the third best record in the majors. Unlike past years, the Nats are in a much better position to make a deep run into October this year.
Let me know if you’ve heard this one before: the Washington Nationals are several games up on their nearest competition in the NL East, winning games behind a strong starting rotation, and are poised to make a splash at the trade deadline. Sure, the 2012 Nats won 98 games, the most in team history, but the club lacked playoff experience and it showed as the team made an early exit at the hands of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Enter the 2014 Washington Nationals, making their second trip into the playoffs after a disappointing campaign the season prior. This team, although with playoff experience, was quickly set down by the eventual World Champion San Francisco Giants. Their biggest flaw? The roster had the talent to get them into the playoffs, but they were not well-rounded enough to go beyond the first round.
The year is now 2016, and the Washington Nationals are once again hanging around with the best in the business. Currently sitting 19 games over .500, they have the third best record in the majors, closely trailing those of the Giants and Cubs.
This time, however, the Nats are a different team than they were before. They have ample playoff experience, a much more balanced roster, and are being steered by a steady manager at the helm.
As crazy as it sounds, the Washington Nationals didn’t sign Max Scherzer to a $210 million contract prior to the 2015 season for the crazy strikeouts totals he posts during the regular season. While they will be more than happy to count up the K’s as he mows down opposing lineups in May, Mike Rizzo had October baseball on his mind the day he inked Scherzer to his mega deal.
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Scherzer pitched for the Tigers in the World Series in 2012. Jonathan Papelbon recorded three saves without giving up a run for the Phillies during the 2007 Fall Classic. Last season, Daniel Murphy homered his way to an NL pennant with the Mets.
None of these players were members of the Washington Nationals the last time they made the postseason, but even those who were have only gotten better. Bryce Harper has since won an MVP Award, Stephen Strasburg is finally pitching like the ace they drafted him to be, and Wilson Ramos was just named to his first career All-Star team.
The Nats as a whole lead the majors in ERA (3.18) and fielding percentage (.990), while hitting the most home runs in the Senior Circuit (127). They finally have that well-balanced team required to go deep into the playoffs.
Dusty Baker is a better manager than both Davey Johnson and Matt Williams, and not just because of his bullpen management. He keeps the clubhouse loose (something Williams struggled with), while ensuring the players are focused on taking the season one game at a time (ditto for Davey). He has pitching expert Mike Maddux handling his prized arms and baserunning guru Davey Lopes keeping runners aggressive on the basepaths.
Both the 2012 and 2014 Nats lacked a true closer at the back-end of the bullpen, and opposing offenses exposed them for it in their short playoff stints. With Papelbon handling ninth inning duties, Washington knows they have a player who’s been there before.
Even if they aren’t content, however, Rizzo has shown the willingness to make the moves necessary to further ensure their opponents don’t score late in games. The Nats’ farm system is stacked with Major League-ready talent, and teams like the Yankees and Rays will be licking their chops when highly touted prospect Reynaldo Lopez takes the mound for his Major League debut tonight.
But wait, it’s an even year, so the Giants have to win it all right? I thought the Cubs were supposed to be the super team that no one stands a chance against? Not so fast, say the Washington Nationals. They just might be the best of them all.