The Washington Nationals have valiantly defended their lead in the NL East all season, but for the most part, they were getting by on their league-best pitching. Now in the second half of the season, that’s all starting to change, as the Nationals’ offense has powered the team through its last few victories.
That’s not to say the Nationals’ pitching has given up any ground. They still own Major League Baseball’s lowest team ERA (3.19), opponents’ batting average (.232), and WHIP (1.20). Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez have been rock solid all season with 13 and 11 wins, respectively, and Jordan Zimmermann has been nearly unhittable as of late, dropping his ERA to a stingy 2.31.
In the 83 games leading up to the All-Star break, Washington struggled to score runs, only crossing home plate 348 times. At the time, they ranked 20th in the majors in runs scored. Their batting average was not impressive either. Batting .251, the Nationals were hitting below the league average.
But now, the pitchers who have thrown their arms off all season are finally receiving some much-needed run support. Since the All-Star break, no team in the MLB has scored more runs than the Nationals (77). Washington has also improved its once-struggling team batting average to .288, which ties them with the St. Louis Cardinals for the league’s best average since the break.
Offensively, the Nationals have really turned things around. In their past 15 games, Washington’s bats have complimented their pitching nicely, and the team has become one of the most feared ball clubs across the league. Right now, the Nationals are firing on all cylinders and nobody wants to see them coming up on their schedule.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the Nationals’ recent success on one specific batter. Nineteen-year-old Bryce Harper has gotten a lot of recognition during the Nats’ hot streak, as he has all season. But aside from his one home run and three stolen bases, many of Harper’s batting statistics have dropped off since the All-Star break. In fact, the Nationals currently have five batters who have maintained a batting average of .300 or greater since the break, and Harper is not one of them.
But if one player had to be singled out as the Nationals’ second-half MVP, it would be third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. He owns the team’s best batting average since the All-Star break (.410), but it has been Zimmerman’s ability to drive in runs that’s made him so valuable lately.
In the past 15 games, Zimmerman has a team-leading six home runs and 14 RBI. Compare that to the eight home runs and 40 RBIs Zimmerman had in the first half of the season, which took him 69 games to compile. Left fielder Michael Morse has also driven in double-digit runs since the break (12), but Zimmerman’s 48 total bases in his past 61 at-bats leaves his teammates' production in the dust.
With Thursday night’s 8-2 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers, the team’s record bumped up to 20 games over .500 for the first time since the franchise has gone by the Washington Nationals. Over the past few weeks, the Nationals have emerged as the most dominant team not only in the National League, but also the entire MLB. Their 59 wins tie them with the New York Yankees for the league lead.
With the team closing in on 60 wins in late July, it’s been an exciting summer for baseball fans in the D.C. area. The way Washington has been playing lately, the only cause for concern Nats fans should have is that their team is peaking a bit too early.
We’ve seen it happen before; the mighty of the regular season crumbling under the pressure of the postseason as the the team that got hot late in the season makes a historic run toward a championship. After all, just last year the Cardinals, who barely clinched the NL Wild Card spot in the 160th game of the regular season, ended up winning the World Series.
But that’s looking a bit too far in the future. Right now, I’m sure Nationals manager Davey Johnson would say that the team’s focus is to finish out the final three games of their series in Milwaukee before they return to D.C. to host the Philadelphia Phillies. If the Nationals want to keep up this success, they’ll need to ignore the hype and take things a series at a time.
Given all of this, things are still looking up in Washington. Outfielder Jayson Werth and closer Drew Storen are both slowly working their way back from injuries, but when they do return to the Nationals’ lineup, Washington could rack up even more tallies in the “Curly ‘W’” column.