As of Aug. 8, the Washington Nationals have the best record in baseball at 67-43. They have a four-game lead over the Atlanta Braves in the NL East, which is the largest margin for any NL division leaders.
Obviously, a four-game gap can be overcome with two months remaining in the season.
As we saw last year with the Braves and Boston Red Sox, what appears to be a comfortable lead can vanish in a matter of weeks. Suddenly, a sure playoff team is sitting at home, just like the rest of us, wincing at whatever theme song TBS comes up with for its postseason package.
But how have the Nationals emerged to become this good? The Nats were predicted to be a fringe contender this year, a popular sleeper pick for many. Yet here they are, the best team in the NL and perhaps in all of baseball. Here's why this is happening.
Winning the Arms Race
The numbers tell the story. The Nationals lead the majors in team ERA at 3.26. Their starters have compiled a collective 3.20 ERA, also tops in the big leagues. While the bullpen looks more middle-of-the-pack with a 3.40 ERA, the late-inning corp has been excellent.
Stephen Strasburg already gave the Nats an ace, but general manager Mike Rizzo traded for a strong No. 2 in Gio Gonzalez during the offseason. The two have dominated the competition this season, each looking like a Cy Young Award candidate.
That's just the top of the rotation. As of Aug. 8, Jordan Zimmermann is second in the NL with a 2.45 ERA. Edwin Jackson could be a second or third starter on many teams, yet he's the fourth starter in the Washington rotation. And how many teams get a 2.99 ERA from their fifth starter, which is what Ross Detwiler provides?
A more typical fifth starter is John Lannan, who went 10-13 with a 3.70 ERA for Washington last season. Yet the Nats have kept him in Triple-A Syracuse for most of the season as an insurance policy for when another starter was needed.
Losing a closer would be devastating for some teams. Look at how the Red Sox have dealt with Andrew Bailey going down with injury.
Drew Storen was out until mid-July after arthroscopic elbow surgery, but the Nats had two fill-ins ready to go. Henry Rodriguez showed he couldn't locate his fastball well enough for the job, so manager Davey Johnson moved his lights-out setup man into the role and Tyler Clippard has saved 23 games.
The setup crew didn't suffer with Clippard moving to the ninth either. Sean Burnett, Craig Stammen and Ryan Mattheus have each provided outstanding relief in the penultimate innings.
No other team in baseball has the same kind of depth and performance that the Nationals have enjoyed from top to bottom this season.
Help is On the Way
We already mentioned Storen, who's returned after missing the first three-and-a-half months of the season.
He might not get his closer job back this year, as Johnson doesn't want to tinker with what's obviously working. But Storen will either provide another excellent setup man or can take over as closer whenever needed.
The Nationals also got through most of the season's first half without its top home run and RBI man from last year. Michael Morse was out with a lat injury, depriving the Nats lineup of a slugger it desperately needed. Opposing pitchers can't pitch around Adam LaRoche anymore and the middle of the order has another run producer.
Also returning is outfielder Jayson Werth, out since early May with a broken wrist. Most teams would have loved to add a 25-homer, 80-RBI, .800 OPS bat to their lineup in early August. Here comes Werth to give the Nationals the outfield they hoped to begin the season with. Morse is in left, Bryce Harper is in center and Werth is in right field.
Depth Covers Many Holes
The Nats began the season without their starting left fielder and closer. They also lost their starting catcher and right fielder, and for a time, were without their starting third baseman and franchise cornerstone.
Missing those key pieces from the roster could derail a season for several teams. Yet the Nationals have been in or near first place in the NL East throughout the regular season, falling no further behind than 1.5 games. And that deficit lasted for no longer than three days.
Wilson Ramos goes out for the season and Jesus Flores steps in as the starting catcher. Ryan Zimmerman develops a sore shoulder and Steve Lombardozzi takes over at third base. A rotation of Lombardozzi, Rick Ankiel, Xavier Nady and Roger Bernandina kept the outfield afloat while Morse and Werth were out.
Minor leaguers Bryce Harper and Tyler Moore also came up from Triple-A Syracuse to give the offense a boost and fill holes in the everyday lineup. They haven't left the majors since.
Even now, roster versatility and depth helps the Nats to cover key absences. Ian Desmond, the team's All-Star shortstop, goes out with an oblique injury and Danny Espinosa slides over from second base to fill that spot. Lombardozzi takes over at second, again helping fill another position need.
The Nats' roster depth will come into play yet again when Strasburg is shut down for the season in mid-September. John Lannan, Chien-Ming Wang or Tom Gorzelanny could step into the rotation for three starts or so, getting Washington through the rest of the regular-season schedule.
Front Office Support
Rizzo didn't add any big pieces at the trade deadline, passing on the opportunity to bring in another starting pitcher to cover for Strasburg's absence once he's shut down. Adding another reserve infielder in light of Desmond's injury might not have been a bad move either. A backup catcher to give Flores a break would have helped too.
Since the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline passed, however, Rizzo has made some smaller moves to bolster a couple of positions that could use some depth as insurance.
Catcher Kurt Suzuki was acquired from Oakland to prevent Flores from wearing down toward the end of the season. He could either alternate with Flores or could very well become the Nationals' starting catcher once he familiarizes himself with the pitching staff.
Rizzo also brought in Cesar Izturis, claiming him off waivers to give the team another utility infielder to help out at shortstop and second base. At the very least, Izturis should be an upgrade over Mark DeRosa, who looks just about done as a major league player.
The Nationals didn't need to make a splashy move, but getting some extra bodies definitely helps. Sometimes, those guys turn out to be unexpectedly major contributors, such as Cody Ross was for the Giants in 2010. Jeff Francoeur with the Rangers that same year is another example.
Hmm, weren't both of those teams in the World Series that year?
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