Nationals Clicking at the Right Time to Grab a Firm Hold on NL East Crown

Mike RosenbaumMLB Prospects Lead WriterAugust 15, 2014

Washington Nationals’ Bryce Harper celebrates his two-run home run as he approaches second base during the 13th inning of a baseball game against the New York Mets, Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014, in Washington. The Nationals won 5-3 in 13 innings. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez)
Luis M. Alvarez/Associated Press

The Washington Nationals are feeling it.

On Thursday night, the Nationals completed a three-game road sweep of the New York Mets, winning 4-1 behind a dominant start from Stephen Strasburg and home runs from Adam LaRoche and Bryce Harper.

The win was Washington’s 11th straight at Citi Field as well as its sixth in the last eight games, and the Nationals now hold a six-game lead over the Atlanta Braves in the National League East with a 66-53 overall record. And considering how well the Nationals have played over the past month, it’s starting to seem as though the team could run away with the division.

The Nationals and Braves entered the All-Star break tied atop the NL East standings, but the two teams since have trended in opposite directions, clearly.

Atlanta’s 9-17 record to begin the second half is tied (with the Reds) for second-worst in the NL. The offense has slumped to the tune of .237/.308/.339 during that span, while the pitching staff’s 1.43 WHIP and .275 opponents’ batting average both rank last in the league.

The Nationals, on the other hand, have been firing on all cylinders since the All-Star break, with a 15-11 record and plus-28 run differential over 26 games, and they appear to be getting stronger with every game.

The team took a hit in late July when Ryan Zimmerman landed on the disabled list with a hamstring injury, as it was forced to face the possibility that it might be without its All-Star third baseman for the final two-plus months of the regular season. Therefore, the Nats decided to strengthen their Zimmerman-less infield shortly before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline by acquiring Asdrubal Cabrera from the Indians to play second base with Anthony Rendon back at the hot corner.

The addition of Cabrera seemingly jump-started the Nationals’ offense this month, as they currently lead all NL clubs with 18 home runs and rank second with 57 runs scored in August. More significantly, the team’s .422 slugging percentage and .732 OPS in August both represent its highest single-month averages this season.

And it’s not as though it’s only a few Nationals hitters swinging hot bats.

Seven of the club’s everyday position players have posted an OPS above .700 this month:

Nationals Hitters in August
ABR2BHRRBIAVGOPS
Adam LaRoche4712547.3191.109
Wilson Ramos313124.323.892
Denard Span5453-2.370.838
Asdrubal Cabrera425214.262.776
Anthony Rendon577439.263.767
Ian Desmond499-38.245.738
Bryce Harper477-38.234.727
MLB.com

It isn’t reflected in his .234 batting average, but Harper, who missed nearly two months after undergoing surgery on his thumb, actually has shown signs of righting the ship lately, with a .285 average, three home runs and seven RBI over his last seven contests. Amazingly, each of those long balls came against the Mets, as he took the first two out the other way before launching a no-doubter to right field on Thursday.

Nationals manager Matt Williams talked about his 21-year-old outfielder after the game (via Bill Ladson of MLB.com):

His strength is coming back, and if he gets a ball that is in a little bit, sometimes it hurts him. He feels it for a day or so, but that is part of the process coming back from that. He is getting stronger by the day. He is seeing it better. It probably starts with strength. If you feel good about it, then you are able to stay back and wait for the ball a little bit, let it travel, and he has been doing that.

Now that the Nationals’ offense has begun to realize its potential, the hope is that it will take some of the pressure off the team’s tremendous pitching staff.

Stephen Strasburg returned to form Thursday after yielding seven earned runs and a career-high four home runs in his last start, as the right-hander struck out eight batters over seven innings, allowing one run (unearned) on three hits and two walks. Since the All-Star break, Strasburg has pitched to a 3.76 ERA with 45 strikeouts in 38.1 innings (six starts).

Williams praised his ace’s performance following the game (via MLB.com's Ladson):

He really had fastball command from both sides of the plate. That's where it starts with him. If he can do that, it just opens up everything else. He pitched well. He had a jam in the middle inning and he got out of it with a great double-play ball. He pitched well.

Left-hander Gio Gonzalez has struggled with a 5.47 ERA over his last five starts, and closer Rafael Soriano has blown a pair of saves while allowing six runs in 10.1 innings (5.23 ERA), but the rest of Nationals’ staff has been nothing short of dominant during the second half.

Nationals Pitchers Post All-Star Break
GSIPERAWHIPBAABBK
Doug Fister5341.061.06.242524
Tanner Roark534.12.360.96.203827
Jordan Zimmermann531.22.560.95.240129
Stephen Strasburg638.13.761.15.2371145
Tyler Clippard12120.000.33.077114
Ross Detwiler99.21.861.14.27815
Drew Storen108.13.241.68.30349
Craig Stammen7123.751.58.32738
MLB.com

Washington’s pitchers have featured exemplary command this year, as the hurlers listed above have collectively posted a 161-34 strikeout-to-walk ratio since the All-Star break. To put things into perspective, Strasburg’s free pass to Curtis Granderson on Thursday night with no outs in the sixth inning was the first walk allowed by a Nationals starter in the three-game series.

However, while the red-hot Nationals appear poised for a deep run into the postseason, they can still make their lives easier by improving their overall play in close games and within the division.

The Nationals are 28-18 when facing NL East teams this season, with both a winning record and positive run differential against every team except the Braves. In 13 games versus the Braves, the Nats are just 4-9 and have been outscored 53-38. However, they’ve been able to recover many of those wins against the Mets (10-2) and Phillies (8-5)

Lastly, the Nationals could take a big step toward the playoffs during the second half by winning more one-run games, which obviously is easier said than done. So far this season, the team is 14-18 with a minus-four run differential in such games, while seven of those 18 losses have come against either Atlanta (3), Philadelphia (3) or Miami (1).

The Nationals simply look like a different team compared to the first half of the season. However, despite a six-game lead in the division, they’ll need a strong finish to the regular season to fend off the Braves and Marlins, both of whom are a winning streak away from being back in the mix.

One thing is for certain: The Nats are going to be exciting to watch down the stretch.