With a postseason berth already locked up, the Washington Nationals are closing in on their first division title in team history. Sure, they’ve lost some steam over the last month, but the team’s spectacular season will immediately be validated with either a win or a Braves loss over the final three games.
Given the optional loss of Stephen Strasburg for the remainder of the 2012 regular season as well as the entire postseason, additional pressure has inevitably been placed on the rest of the Nationals’ starting rotation.
The right-hander last pitched for the Nationals on Sept. 7, when he allowed five earned runs in three innings—an outing that ultimately forced the Nationals to pull the plug on their ace earlier than expected.
In Strasburg’s absence, Washington starters have recorded a 12-5 record and 4.39 ERA with a season-high .757 OPS by opposing hitters in 28 games since Sept. 1. If you compare the collective month-by-month statistics of the Nats' starting rotation, it’s obvious that the team has been more reliant upon offensive production over the last month.
Leading the Nationals' postseason surge has been their 19-year-old phenom, Bryce Harper, who, despite being overshadowed by baseball's best player, Mike Trout, is enjoying a historically good rookie campaign.
Over the last month the left-handed hitter has batted .330/.398/.651 with 17 extra-base hits (seven home runs), 14 RBI, four stolen bases and 11 walks in 28 games. According to Fangraphs.com, Harper’s 1.9 fWAR in the month of September ranked second among all major league hitters.
Obviously, it’s unrealistic to assume that Harper will maintain his current rate of production throughout the entire postseason. However, as they’re now forced to score more runs than any previous month, the Nationals will need him to remain a dynamic, game-changing player.
The great thing about Harper is that he’s capable of fulfilling such a role in a variety of ways.
While his offensive prowess already has been well documented, Harper has just as much potential to save runs through his outstanding defense at all three outfield positions.
Overall, the 19-year-old has saved 14 runs with his defense this season, which ranks eighth among all big league outfielders. While part of that is a result of the range and aggressiveness of his routes, his arm—which is valued at 6.6 (third among all outfielders) according to FanGraphs—is yet another tool capable of making a difference in a postseason contest.
So, even though the Nationals will be forced to either score more or allow fewer runs for as long as they’re alive in the 2012 postseason, they should be able to rely on their immensely talented, teenage superstar as they have over the past month.
Harper has thrived in the spotlight all season, especially when it’s mattered the most down the stretch. There’s no reason to believe that he’s going to stop now.
So baseball fans, be prepared for Harper’s already legendary status to reach new heights this October.