In case you were wondering, your local newspaper did not print the NL East standings upside-down.
With all five teams within four games of each other, the Washington Nationals are currently leading Major League Baseball’s tightest division with a 29-18 record. The Nats have a 2.5-game lead over the second place New York Mets and a five-game lead over the last place Philadelphia Phillies.
The Nationals have remained near the top of the fluctuating division all spring and are closing in on their 30th win as they approach 50 games played. Winning like this is relatively new in D.C. but that’s not to say it can’t become the norm.
Nationals fans have a reason for growing increasingly skeptical to the recent success. In past years, the Nats have gone on hot streaks, only to have them doused by very long, very cold streaks.
However, to the D.C. faithful, the summer of 2012 looks much more promising.
Offensively, the Nationals are nothing to behold. According to MLB.com, they rank 22nd in the MLB in runs with 185 and 18th in team batting average with a .246 average.
Despite lackluster hitting, the Nationals have gotten by on the long ball. Washington’s 46 home runs place it in the top six in the National League.
Four of those 46 home runs have come off the bat of 19-year-old Bryce Harper, including one from last night in the Nationals’ 7-2 win over the Atlanta Braves. The young slugger has breathed life into the Nationals offense ever since he was called up on April 28. In 27 games played, Harper has 29 hits and a slugging percentage of .525.
Aside from what he can do swinging the bat, Harper makes plays with his legs. On May 9, in a 9-3 loss to Philadelphia, Harper stole home while Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels attempted to pick off a runner at first.
Harper’s speed has enabled him to make incredible plays on the ball in the outfield, and his cannon of an arm has made players think twice about taking an extra base.
As the summer heats up, so will Harper. The youngster has plenty to learn and has tremendous upside. If the Nats continue to win, it will be on the bat of Bryce Harper.
But, as the old sports adage goes: “Offense wins games, defense wins championships.”
If that holds true, then pencil in the Nationals as National League pennant favorites for Washington has the best pitching staff in the entire NL.
With a team ERA of 2.93, the Nats pitching has been lights-out so far this spring. The Nationals have allowed the fewest hits in the MLB with 342 as well as the second-fewest home runs with 30, according to MLB.com.
D.C.’s star pitcher and first-overall draft pick in 2009, Stephen Strasburg, has recorded 70 of the team’s league-leading 398 strikeouts. However, fellow starter Gio Gonzalez surpassed Strasburg in last night’s victory with 79 total strikeouts this year. Both pitchers have only dropped one game each all season.
Both pitchers have been pivotal to Washington’s success so far this season. In fact, even when the Nationals’ bats are struggling, Strasburg can provide a little run support for himself, like he did on May 20.
The Nationals' only weak spot in their pitching may be their ability to close. After compiling a 4.74 ERA, Henry Rodriguez was relieved of the team’s closing duties, according to an article that ran in the Washington Post. Despite popular Nationals reliever Tyler Clippard’s apparent interest in the position, manager Davey Johnson has decided not to designate a specific closer for the time being.
To complement Washington’s league-best pitching, the Nationals are also one of the most proficient fielding clubs in the National League.
The Nats fielders are not flashy. They rank among the NL’s worst when it comes to double plays and number of runners caught stealing with 32 and eight, respectively.
However, they are incredibly efficient. With only 26 errors on the season (only the Phillies have fewer with 25), the Nats fielders rarely allow anything unnecessary to get by them.
For the first time in a long time, the Washington Nationals' future is looking bright. So far in 2011, the Nats are 6-3 against teams that made the playoffs last year, which could be an indicator that they are finally ready to play competitively with the best teams in the league.
The Nationals are about to enter a 21-game stretch in which they will only be playing teams from the NL East and the AL East. These two divisions combined have only one team, the Boston Red Sox (23-24), with a winning percentage below .500.
If the Nats can make it through this tough stretch boasting a winning percentage similar to the one they have now, making the playoffs will be a very real possibility.
One thing is for certain: This is not the same team that had back-to-back 100-plus loss seasons in 2008 and 2009. This is a rebuilt ball club with a legitimate shot at an NL East title and a playoff run.