Washington Nationals: What Is The Biggest Playoff Storyline?

Washington Nationals

Sep 23, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker (12) reacts at the batting cage before playing the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Today, some of the members of our staff take a look at what is the Washington Nationals biggest storyline to watch this October

Tonight, the Washington Nationals will make their second attempt at trying to clinch the NL East. They need a win and a Mets loss to clinch their third NL East title since 2012. While an NL East title should be celebrated, the Washington Nationals will look to win a playoff round for the first time since they became the Nats in 2005.

Less than two weeks from now, that playoff journey will begin, whether its at home or against the likely NL West champion, the Los Angeles Dodgers, at Dodger Stadium. Right now, the Nats have their fair share of concerns going into October, whether it’s Stephen Strasburg’s playoff availability unknown or Daniel Murphy being out of the lineup the last few days.

This week, a few of our writers gave their answers as to what is the biggest storyline they are looking forward to watching once the playoffs begin. We also would like to hear from you. Share with us the storyline you are looking forward to watching this postseason from a Washington Nationals perspective.

First, let’s start with co-editor Ron Juckett, as he is looking to watch how Tanner Roark emerges in the playoff rotation:

Washington Nationals

Jul 22, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals starting pitcher Tanner Roark (57) reacts after giving up a three run homer to San Diego Padres right fielder Matt Kemp (27) during the fifth inning at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Roark The X-Factor?

In my view, the biggest key to the Washington Nationals success this postseason is how well Tanner Roark does. He’s the X-Factor as we know Max Scherzer will matchup against Clayton Kershaw in his NLDS starts.

Although he pitched two years ago against the San Francisco Giants, both of his games came as a reliever. This year, he gets to start. Hopefully at home and not down a game in the series.

Roark is a legitimate Cy Young candidate, but he has yet to start a game as important as this. The trick is getting those playoff butterflies out of the way as fast as possible and settle in. If the Nats do their job the rest of the way, he will have the luxury of pitching in front of a friendly crowd. That will help.

In case he draws a Dodger Stadium start, it comes down to trusting his stuff. If television says it’s a twilight game, all the better. The shadows of a California sunset are his friend.

With Strasburg out, Roark has the chance to show the rest of baseball what we already know. He is a legit number two starter who will cause nightmares for the opposition. In a best-of-five series, his start will be huge.

Next up is staff writer Grant Thomas, with his thoughts on the depth of the Washington Nationals roster:

Washington Nationals

Jul 19, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals second baseman Trea Turner (7) hits a triple against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the eighth inning at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Nats More Well-Rounded Than In Past Years

The biggest storyline heading into the playoffs is that this is the most well-rounded October team the Nats have had in years. In past seasons, the one glaring weakness was clear: Since 2012 the offense just hasn’t been able to consistently put together good games in the playoffs. Thus, great pitching performances were wasted as a result.

The Washington Nationals will once again have maybe the strongest rotation in the postseason and now the offense is following. This season’s lineup features some serious threats that weren’t present in the past.

Trea Turner is catching fire at the right time; the young center fielder is looking like a future superstar, a speed demon with a knack for contact and occasional big pop. Wilson Ramos got eye surgery and is now one of the MLB’s best hitting catchers. Anthony Rendon is putting together a fantastic second half (.269 batting average) and is still underrated on the national scene.

Danny Espinosa and Ryan Zimmerman have been cold all year, the latter due to the typical injuries. The bottom of the lineup is a concern. But with the above assets, plus the potential of Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth in the high-stakes environment of the playoffs, there should be more support for these starting pitchers than they are used to.

Next is Matt Weyrich, who looks at Daniel Murphy‘s importance this October:

Washington Nationals

Jun 24, 2016; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Washington Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy (20) hits an RBI double during the third inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Nats’ Success Hinges on Murphy

The Nationals enter the final stretch in the season having scored the fourth most runs in the National League. They have done it with reigning MVP Bryce Harper playing unlike his superhuman self, something that many analysts probably didn’t predict coming into this season. Instead of Harper, it’s been second baseman Daniel Murphy powering Washington’s lineup.

Murphy, who boasts a .347/.391/.596 slash line with 25 home runs, has had a breakout season after signing a three-year deal with the Nats over the offseason. He has been a staple in the middle of the lineup for D.C., and the team simply would not be where they are right now without him.

Over the past week, however, Murphy hasn’t been able to make it into the starting lineup. An MRI revealed a mild buttocks strain Friday afternoon, sidelining him for the next few games. This is bad news for the Nats, who will already be without Stephen Strasburg in the National League Division Series. If Murphy’s injury proves to be more serious than the Nationals’ medical staff believes, Washington may have trouble making it out of the first round.

Anthony Rendon and Turner have played vital roles in the lineup over the past few weeks and Wilson Ramos has finally appeared to be back on track. While their contributions are nothing to bat an eye at, the Nats’ World Series aspirations hinge upon Murphy taking the field. He has been the most dynamic player on the team this season, and the Nats had better pray his treatments help him get back in the lineup soon.

Finally, co-editor Ricky Keeler talks about how Bryce Harper needs to get back on track:

Washington Nationals

May 4, 2016; Kansas City, MO, USA; Washington Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper (34) hits a solo home run against the Kansas City Royals during the fifth inning at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Harper Needs To Get Back On Track

Last season, Bryce Harper was arguably the best player in all of Major League Baseball. This postseason, he will go into October with more questions than ever before. Despite his three-hit game last night in Pittsburgh, the Washington Nationals right fielder is hitting .203 in September with one home run and seven RBI’s.

Ever since that May 8 game in Chicago when Harper walked six times, the reigning NL MVP has not looked like the player he was a season ago. As Tom Verducci wrote on SI.com this week, Harper has been bothered by injury:

The Nationals and Harper have been tight-lipped about his condition. But last Saturday, Baker admitted to me “the shoulder thing” has bothered the reigning NL MVP. He’s simply not the same hitter, and you can see it clearly the way pitchers consistently beat him on fastballs away.

This Washington Nationals lineup does have depth, but they need Harper to hit some clutch home runs and drive in runs when the team needs it the most. Back in 2014, Harper was the superstar in that NLDS series against the Giants (.294, three home runs, four RBI’s).

If the Washington Nationals do face the Dodgers in the NLDS, Harper will face a team that he went 5-for-24 against this season, but three of those hits were home runs. While he does have a home run against likely Game 1 starter Clayton Kershaw, Harper is 1-for-15 against him with ten strikeouts in his career.

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While this lineup will benefit from having a postseason hero like Murphy in the lineup, the Washington Nationals will need Harper to snap out of his slump if they want to have prolonged success in the postseason.

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