On the Fourth of July, I’m prepared to make a patriotic proclamation.
The Washington Nationals will win the National League East.
The statement sounds bolder than it actually is. The Nationals have the best record, lowest team ERA and largest division lead in the NL. At a time one might expect them to tire in the summer heat, the Nationals are playing their best baseball yet. The San Francisco Giants arrived here this week as the NL West leader, and the Nationals battered them in the first two games by an 18-7 count.
Ryan Zimmerman and Mike Morse, limited by injuries for much of the season, hit back-to-back home runs in the holiday matinee. A backup catcher named Jhonatan Solano — he’s the fifth player to start at the position for Washington this year — delivered the go-ahead home run. Edwin Jackson, a winner for the fourth time in sixth starts, received a partial standing ovation in the fourth inning — after a fly ball to the warning track.
The Nationals are living right. And I don’t see any team in the division catching them now.
“I don’t think it’s a fluke,” general manager Mike Rizzo said after Wednesday’s 9-4 win when asked about his team’s position atop the league. “We knew with the starting pitching we had, the bullpen we had, the defense we had, we were going to be in a lot of games. Then when the offense would catch up, we would have a chance to go on some streaks.
“I’m very pleased with it — don’t get me wrong — but I’m not shocked by it. I’m not taken aback or in awe with it. We feel comfortable in our own skin. We feel comfortable with where we’re at.”
At 15 games over .500, most of the yeah-buts associated with the Nationals’ torrid start have melted away. There remains the thorny topic of how many innings the organization will allow Stephen Strasburg to throw this year. (And, yes, the team still plans to take the ball away from Strasburg sometime in September.)
Aside from that, what exactly are this team’s weaknesses? A recent shot of cortisone into Zimmerman’s right shoulder enlivened his bat and, by extension, the lineup. The Nationals have averaged better than eight runs per game during their current 6-2 run. Jayson Werth should further improve matters when he returns from the disabled list later this month. Recuperating closer Drew Storen should have a similar impact on the bullpen when he comes back after the All-Star break.
The team’s most obvious flaw is a lack of postseason experience. Only two players on the active roster — starter Edwin Jackson and reserve Mark DeRosa — have World Series rings. The Nationals’ core is young, homegrown and generally inexpensive. Those are excellent attributes, but inherent is unfamiliarity with meaningful September baseball.
Zimmerman doesn’t care.
“We’re learning how to win,” he said. “We’re very inexperienced in this kind of stuff, but experience is the most overrated thing in sports. The game is the game, whether it’s now or Sept. 15, and you need five more wins to do whatever. It’s the same game we’re playing right now. That’s the way all of us think of it.
“It’s easy to say now, because none of us have ever been through it. But I really have a feeling that, even later in the year, I really don’t see anything changing. It’s just a group of guys that enjoys playing baseball. Pressure and experience and age — all that junk is overrated. Take our 25 guys against someone else’s 25 guys. It’s not like we’re going to show up in September and swing at every slider in the dirt.”
That, in short, is why I’m convinced the Nationals will win the division: They have truckloads of talent and just the right amount of swagger.
Speaking of the talent/swagger nexus, we’ve reached this point in a discussion about the Nationals and here comes the first mention of Bryce Harper. Competitively speaking, that’s about the way it should be. Harper is a 19-year-old rookie, facing more scrutiny than just about any teenage athlete we can recall, and it’s no accident that his worst stretch in the majors came just before Zimmerman and Morse got going. Perhaps Harper had begun to feel the tightening vise of expectations.
Now, Harper can settle into his role — a No. 2 hitter who provides a lot of energy, some power and good defense in center field. Even at his tender age, he’s capable of that much.
Nationals manager Davey Johnson remarked this week that he would like to move Harper to the outfield corners more often, as a way to ease the stress on his body. But that will become difficult once Werth returns to play right, now that Morse is reestablished in left. Morse can play first base, but that would force Johnson to sit Adam LaRoche, who leads the team with 15 home runs and 52 RBI.
The Nationals might acquire a center fielder during the offseason — Michael Bourn? B.J. Upton? — but Harper appears to be the solution for the remainder of the season.
“I think Bryce has showed all of us that he can handle center field,” Rizzo said. “He’s got 19-year-old legs. His legs aren’t going to be an issue for us. His energy level isn’t going to be an issue for us. It looks like he’s going to be our center fielder, because you’ve got to get everybody’s bat in the lineup. He’s played it well, and I think that makes the decision much easier for us.”
The hard decision is the one that involves Strasburg, but Rizzo has resolved to make it. The Nationals have said since spring training that Strasburg’s innings will be capped (likely around 160) in his first full season after Tommy John surgery, and their success hasn’t changed Rizzo’s approach. Nor has the fact Strasburg said he feels “great” after throwing 93 innings so far this year. “I have no clue how many innings I’m going to throw this year,” Strasburg said. “Nobody’s said anything to me.”
Asked how the clubhouse will react when the front office shuts down Strasburg for the season, Morse said, “When they say he can’t pitch, he can’t pitch. Our team is good enough. Mike Rizzo built this team, knowing that Stephen’s not going to be able to go the full length. I bet he has a good game plan, and I think we’ll be fine.”
I don’t agree with the Nationals’ approach, because they owe their players (and fans) the best possible opportunity to win the World Series. But I’ve written as much before, and, much to my amazement, it didn’t affect Rizzo’s plans. So, soon the focus will turn to how the Nationals can account for his absence.
The Nationals, in fact, should have a good rotation without Strasburg. Gio Gonzalez is an All-Star, Jordan Zimmermann should be one, too, and Jackson and Ross Detwiler have ERAs below 4.00. Unless Rizzo trades for a starter — which is possible — Strasburg’s likely replacement is John Lannan, the left-hander who led the Nationals in wins last year but has spent all of this season at Triple-A Syracuse.
Lannan’s full-season numbers are ordinary, but he’s been excellent lately: 1-1 with a 2.10 ERA in his past four starts. Rizzo said the Nationals “never shopped” Lannan earlier this season, adding, “We knew what our calendar looked like.” That was a not-so-subtle reference to Strasburg’s seasonal sundial. And if the Nationals needed a starting pitcher tomorrow, Rizzo said, Lannan would get the call.
Contrast that with the pitching quandaries of the Mets (worst bullpen in baseball) and Braves (Brandon Beachy out for the season, Mike Minor and Randall Delgado struggling). The Marlins and Phillies? Please. Both of them are stuck on the wrong side of .500, and Philadelphia recently lost six straight.
So, count on Nationals Park hosting its first postseason game this October. The Nationals have a 4-1/2 lead in the NL East, and they’re just naïve enough to make it last. “We’re not marking off days on the calendar, hoping the season ends, because we’re in first place,” Zimmerman said. “We just go out and have fun. It’s a good atmosphere, a good place.”