The Nationals finally lived up to expectations after a disappointing second-place showing in 2013 when they finished 10 games out of first place. Led by first-year manager Matt Williams, Washington took over the top spot in the NL East on July 21 and hasn't looked back. With one of the majors' top pitching staffs and key contribution from surprise players — see Anthony Rendon — the Nats roared to the division crown in the second half of the season. Here are five reasons why Washington is the division champ.
Getty ImagesAP Photo/David Tulis
Led by arguably the best rotation in the league, the Nationals feature three starters with sub-3.00 ERAs. Not included in those three are team ace Stephen Strasburg and former ace Gio Gonzalez. (L-R) Doug Fister, Tanner Roark and Jordan Zimmermann have been arguably the best pitchers on the team. While they don’t have the gaudy strikeout numbers that Strasburg has, it wouldn’t be surprising if one of these three got the call to start Game 1 of the NLDS. And it’s not just the rotation. The Nats’ team ERA is tops in the NL, with their rotation ERA and reliever ERA both ranking second in the NL.
Getty ImagesTommy Gilligan/Robert Deutsch
First-year manager Matt Williams, nicknamed The Carson Crusher (earned while crushing baseballs as a high schooler in Carson City, Nev.), has instilled a tough-neck attitude this season in the District. His no-nonsense approach seems to have worked for a team that has underachieved the last few years given its overwhelming talent. His willingness to make an example of the young Bryce Harper, while criticized, showed the players that there’s nobody bigger than the team. And with Harper entrenched in an injury-shortened season, the rest of the team picked up the slack. Maybe it’s a coincidence that Williams got the team to the playoffs in his first year and maybe it’s not. Either way, whatever he’s doing seems to be working.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY SportsGeoff Burke
Longtime Nats third baseman Ryan Zimmerman was moved to left field after second-year pro Anthony Rendon showed what he was capable of in Zimmerman’s absence. Rendon is cemented now as the team’s third baseman of the future — he's batting .287 with 20 home runs, 80 RBI, 108 runs and 15 swipes through 144 games. His 108 runs are tied for the major-league lead (with Mike Trout) and he’s tied for ninth in WAR among position players. Zimmerman’s only played in 55 games this season after thumb and hamstring injuries kept him off the field for the majority of the year. A large hole to fill for the Nats, no doubt, but Rendon alleviated any concerns and the Nats pushed on to the division title. — Stats through Sept. 15.
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY SportsBill Streicher
While the Nats had trouble putting away the Braves (7-10 record against), Marlins (6-5) and Phillies (9-10), the Mets served as Washington's doormat to the division title. In 16 games so far this season (three remaining), the Nats beat the Mets 13 times for a ridiculous .813 winning percentage. The season series featured an opening-season, three-game sweep and another three-game sweep in mid-August. With one remaining, the Nats took every 2014 series from New York, nearly doubling the Mets in scoring in the 16 contests, four of which could be categorized as blowouts. And it’s not like the Mets were that terrible this year; the team still has a chance at ending the season with a .500 record, but the Nats certainly had the Mets' number this year. — Stats through Sept. 15.
Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY SportAnthony Gruppuso
LaRoche's wild offseason
While we don’t condone killing of any kind, Adam LaRoche’s resurgent season can most definitely be attributed to an offseason full of bow-hunting. Picture after picture after picture emerged on sports sites last offseason of LaRoche draped in dead animals. There was a mountain lion. Some ducks. And some bucks. And who knows how many more. Once the season started, he put that killer instinct to good use on fastballs hurled by pitchers across the league.