The regular season has been one for the memories for the Washington Nationals and their fans. They are on pace to have the best record in baseball, as they have cruised to the best season in franchise history and officially clinched a playoff birth after Thursday nights victory.
As great as the season as been, it can all be lost in the blink of an eye in the postseason.
If the Nationals do not produce in October, fingers will be pointed and blame will be placed as to why. The No. 1 reason will inevitably be the absence of their ace, Stephen Strasburg.
Since learning that Strasburg was going to be shut down for the rest of the season, the Nationals are 5-5. The absence of Strasburg now falls on the rest of the Nationals players as they try to make a run deep into the playoffs.
It will not be easy, but with key contributions, the Nats might still be able to make a memorable run late into October.
Bryce Harper's importance to the Nationals has been evident all season long. When the team slumped, he picked them up. When he slumped, the rest of the team picked him up.
When the playoffs begin it will be Harper's job to once again pick up his teammates. This time he will not only be picking up his team, but ownership as well. If Harper is successful in leading the Nationals to a World Series or a title, the talk will be about GM Mike Rizzo's decision to bring up Harper this season and not his decision to shut down Strasburg.
Harper has been the offensive centerpiece for the Nationals and he will need to produce even more in October.
Through Thursday night, Harper has played in 73 Nationals wins and 52 losses. He has hit .296 in those wins with 15 home runs, 44 RBI and a .544 slugging percentage. In the losses, he has been abysmal. A .213 average with four home runs, a .335 slugging percentage and only a staggering seven RBI.
His importance goes without saying and without Strasburg, he will be asked to play an even bigger role.
Gio Gonzalez has been outstanding for the Nats this season, compiling a league-leading 19 wins and putting together 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings.
It is hard to imagine Gio doing more for the Nationals, but he will have to try if the Nats want to win a championship.
Gonzalez will now be looked at as the No. 1 starter when the playoffs begin. The rotation now revolves around him, instead of Strasburg. Luckily for Gio, he has likely assumed this would be the case with all of the Strasburg innings limit talk that has surrounded the Nationals this season.
It is now time for Gonzalez to take control of the staff and set the table for the guys taking the mound after him in the playoffs.
The Nationals have stepped up their offensive production in the second half of the season. They have scored 314 runs and hit at a .275 clip, both good for third in the National League in the second half of the season.
A great change from the first half of the season when they were ninth in the league with 348 runs scored and eighth in batting average at .251.
The increased average and production is key in the playoffs as the Nationals will be facing stiffer competition and each run will have more importance.
Luckily, for the Nats, they are hitting their offensive stride as the playoffs get set to begin and while their ace is being shut down. Mediocrity from the pitching staff will be sufficient if the Nats can put up runs against the other team.
The Nationals relievers have pitched the second most amount of innings in the National League this season. They are accustomed to taking the mound for their starting rotation and have done a great job this year. The relievers have combined for a 3.20 ERA—third best in the league.
A major key to success in October will be continued success of their already solid bullpen.
The Nationals have the luxury of throwing Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard at their opponents later into games, both guys with experience closing out ballgames.
Jordan Zimmermann will be a key to the Nats rotation in the playoffs because of uncharted territory that he is now in.
Zimmermann, who is now in his second season after Tommy John Surgery, has pitched 182 2/3 innings through September 20, a new career high. His previous high was 161 2/3 last season when he was on an innings limit coming off of the surgery.
Zimmermann is now off of his leash and, when October rolls around, his role in the staff will be one of the most important. This season he has recorded a 6-2 record in the second half, but his ERA has increased, from 2.61 first half to 3.48 second half.
Despite the respectable ERA in the second half, it is important that Zimmermann maintains consistency throughout the playoffs in uncharted territory. There is no way of knowing what Zimmermann will do as his innings will surpass 200 during the playoffs, but the Nationals are hoping for more of the same from Zimmermann.
The hottest of all Nats since the All-Star break has been Ryan Zimmerman. After battling injuries in the first half, it appears as though Zimmerman is primed and ready to bring a championship to D.C. He is an integral part of the offense and has lead the Nationals starters in batting average and slugging percentage since the All-Star, .332 and .575 respectively.
Zimmerman's 45 RBI in the second half also leads the team and this is what will be the biggest key in the postseason. The run production for the team has to increase and Zimmerman's bat is one of the best things the Nats have going for them as they try to make it deep into the playoffs.
The Nationals are 27-21 in one run games and 12-7 in extra inning affairs. The playoffs will offer up a plethora of close games and if the Nats want to be successful they will have to pull out the close ones.
Although the Nationals are still winning close games, they need to do even better than they have done thus far. The competition is unforgiving in the playoffs and one extra run here and there can mean elimination.
Holding a team to one less run will be a bit more difficult without Strasburg, who boasted a 3.16 ERA
Edwin Jackson will likely be the fourth starter in the playoffs and he will asked to step up since he has the skill to outpitch most team's fourth starter.
Jackson had one of the quietest first halves, keeping opponents to a .228 average and a 3.73 ERA. He has struggled lately, but has to find his first half form in the playoffs. If he can pitch the way he did earlier this season, then the Nats will have another quality arm taking the mound in Strasburg's absence.
The Nationals are going to be playing postseason baseball for the first time in D.C. since moving the franchise. The media hype will be tremendous, the atmosphere will be electric and the Nationals will be doing their best to remain focused.
The Nationals have a team that can contend with any team in baseball. Their biggest challenge might be blocking out the media that will be constantly bringing up Strasburg's absence, Harper's youth and the team's lack of experience in the playoffs. All of which must be ignored by the Nats.
Their inexperience might blindside them and allow for pressure to mount, but they have to stay calm as they have all season. Throughout the season, if they struggled, they were able to keep it together and successfully get back on track.
Making it through the playoffs to win a championship will mean that the Nationals were able to keep their emotions in check and the expectations out of their heads.
The Nationals are a dominant team, whether at home or on the road. The Nats have won 46 games at home and 45 games on the road. The Nationals will be in a better spot in the playoffs if they can clinch home field advantage because it would potentially keep them out of Cincinnati. Cincinnati is 47-28 at home and the Nationals pitching staff might struggle in a hitters ballpark such as Great American.
Although they were 2-1 this season in Cincy, it has to increase their confidence to know that they would have the luxury of playing Game 1 and Game 7 in D.C. if a World Series birth was on the line.