Washington Nationals: Why NL East Squad Isn't Far from Playoff Dominance

Kevin BoilardCorrespondent IJune 27, 2012

The Nationals have had much to celebrate recently.
The Nationals have had much to celebrate recently.Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Through 72 games, the Washington Nationals are 42-30, standing atop the NL East with a 3.5-game lead over the second place Atlanta Braves.  With the midway point of the season nearing, the Nationals should have their sights set on a playoff run.

It has been a long and rocky road for baseball fans in the nation’s capital.  After 33 team-less years followed by seven seasons without a playoff berth, including back-to-back 100-loss seasons in ’08 and ’09, Washington fans finally have something legitimate to cheer about.

About a month ago, I wrote an article regarding the Nationals’ success in 2011.  In that article, I mentioned a 21-game stretch in which the Nationals would face strictly AL and NL East opponents, the toughest competition in the league at the time.  It was essential for Washington to play well during this stretch if it wanted to remain among Major League Baseball’s best.

The Nationals ended that 21-game stretch last Sunday with a 2-1 loss to the Baltimore Orioles.  However, that loss does not reflect the Nationals’ body of work in the month of June.  Washington posted a 12-8 record during this stretch (the game vs. Braves on 6/1 was postponed).

In June, the Nationals took four series, including consecutive sweeps of the Red Sox and Blue Jays.  Aside from dropping the Beltway Series, a three-game sweep at the hands of the New York Yankees is the Nationals’ only other blemish in their past month of play.  Washington has proved that they can finally hang with the best in the bigs.

The Nats’ 42 victories are tied for second-most in the National League—that’s not something Washington fans are used to seeing.  However, the team has managed their recent success well.  The Nationals have been consistent in 2012 and have remained near the top of their division all season.

Stephen Strasburg is one of the NL's top pitchers.
Stephen Strasburg is one of the NL's top pitchers.Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Washington has its defense to thank for its consistency this year.  While the run support has been sparse at times, the Nationals’ fielding and pitching has yet to waver.

The Nationals’ fielders do not make many mistakes.  Washington’s 41 errors are tied for the eighth fewest in the league, and its efficient defense, which currently has a .985 fielding percentage, has played a huge part in the team’s success (via ESPN.com).

Even with such stifling fielding, the Nationals’ pitching staff is the team’s most valuable asset.  Washington is the only MLB squad with a sub-3.00 team ERA (2.98).

In 15 starts, pitcher Stephen Strasburg has posted a league-leading 118 strikeouts. With a 2.60 ERA, Strasburg is finally looking like the superstar the Nats expected him to be when they drafted him with the first pick overall in the 2009 MLB Draft.  Washington expects Strasburg to build on his 9-2 start as his Nationals continue to fight for the team’s first playoff berth.

Fellow pitcher Gio Gonzalez has been equally productive when the Nationals call on him for a start.  The two pitchers have been pushing each other all season and the friendly competition has paid off.  His 108 strikeouts and 2.78 ERA place him just behind Strasburg statistically.  However, Gonzalez's 10 wins edges out the right-handed ace by one game.  Aside from the Detroit Tigers, Washington is the only other team with two pitchers that have hit the century mark for strikeouts.

Tuesday night’s 12-5 victory over the Colorado Rockies was not indicative of Washington’s usual offensive output.  In fact, it was the most runs they have scored all season.  By examining the scores of Washington’s past wins, the Nationals’ excellent pitching and fielding is truly put into perspective.

Gio Gonzalez has been pushing Strasburg all season.
Gio Gonzalez has been pushing Strasburg all season.Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

The Nationals have only scored 277 runs on the season, an average of 3.84 runs per game, which is fourth worst in the MLB (via ESPN.com).  But even when run support is slim, the Nationals have found a way to win.  Washington has won 14 games this season when scoring three runs or less.

Luckily for Nats fans, the old saying goes: “Offense wins games, defense wins championships.”

While Washington’s defense has yet to deliver a championship, it has delivered 41 regular season wins.  If the team can remain focused in the back half of the season, the Nationals will make a lot of noise in the playoffs.  They are a team that seems to be built for postseason dominance.

Although it’s too soon to know for sure, for Washington baseball fans, a long and tumultuous chapter may be coming to an end, as the Nationals look poised to make a deep playoff run in 2012.