The Washington Nationals are doing their collective best not to say it, but it’s on the minds and the tongue tips of everyone who follows this team.
They are the most dangerous team in baseball right now.
After a nightmarish first two months of the season, the Nationals have gone 21-8 since the beginning of June. They won 10 of their final 13 games last month, and Thursday’s 5-2 victory over the Miami Marlins gave them a series sweep and a 3-0 start to July.
The only recent hitch in the Nats’ giddy-up was a bullpen-fueled meltdown that cost them the final two games of a three-game series against the NL East-leading Atlanta Braves two weeks ago at Nationals Park. Even so, they sat just 5 ½ games behind the Braves in the standings and had pulled even with the Philadelphia Phillies for the top NL wild card spot as of this writing.
In many ways, this is the Nationals team that so many observers expected to see this season: A ballclub with dynamite starting pitching and a potent offense that is capable of scoring runs in bunches.
That it took two months for this club to finally arrive is of little consequence at this point. Many expected the NL East to be among the best divisions in baseball, with the Nationals and defending champion Braves being joined in the hunt by Phillies and New York Mets teams that were supposed to be much-improved after their offseason moves. But the Phillies have been inconsistent at best, and the Mets have melted down on and off the field on their way to falling 12 games out of first place.
Meanwhile, the Braves have won 21 of their last 30 games and have not lost a series since a two-game sweep at the hands of the Nationals during the final week of May. Their hot play has been virtually canceled out by the Nats’ success over the same period of time, however.
My point is, the time for the Nationals’ division rivals to run away in the standings has passed. It was an opportunity for everyone to bury them, including the Braves, and they all failed to capitalize on that golden opportunity.
Sure, the Nats aren’t perfect. Their bullpen is still the worst in all of MLB by the numbers, as it entered Thursday with a 6.28 ERA while allowing opposing batters to hit a collective .274. The hope is that the additions of veteran relievers Fernando Rodney and Jonny Venters—both of whom joined the club on June 25—will help the relief corps do a better job of getting the ball to closer Sean Doolittle, whose 19 saves are eighth-best in baseball.
Rodney earned a save by pitching a scoreless ninth inning against the Marlins on Thursday—the second save he’s collected since donning a Nationals uniform.
The Nationals’ defense, ranked 19th overall, has been iffy at times this year as well.
The starting rotation, however, has turned into what you’d expect from a group led by Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin. The group’s collective 3.63 ERA is good for third in MLB, trailing only the Tampa Bay Rays (3.00) and Los Angeles Dodgers (3.06).
Since a bit of a slow start this spring, Scherzer has morphed into his annually-dominant self—he owns a 2.53 ERA and an eye-popping 170 strikeouts in 122 1/3 innings pitched thus far. Even more unbelievable is that he’s on pace to eclipse his total of 300 strikeouts from a year ago.
Strasburg has been steady in his spot. His 10-4 record marks the sixth straight season in which he’s won at least 10 games, and it already matches his win total from 2018. He’s also trending toward a potentially sub-1.00 WHIP, which is something he’s never accomplished in a season where he’s thrown at least 127 innings. He’s currently sitting at a 1.04, and his career-best of 1.02 came two years ago.
Corbin has earned every bit of the six-year, $140 million contract he signed with the club in the offseason. His 3.55 ERA and 1.14 WHIP would each rank among the top three efforts in his career in those respective areas if the season ended today.
Another offseason acquisition, 35-year-old veteran right-hander Anibal Sanchez, has been fantastic over the past five weeks. After starting his Nationals career with a 0-6 record, he’s gone 5-0 with a 2.18 ERA in seven starts since returning on May 29 from a stint on the IL.
On Thursday, Sanchez shut down the Marlins team that he was once a member of, allowing a mere five hits and one run over six innings of work.
Offensively, third baseman Anthony Rendon has been a force for the Nationals since Opening Day and was recently named an All-Star for the first time in his career. He’s batting .310 with a 1.022 OPS, 20 home runs and 60 RBI, making it easier for Nats fans to forget about the defection of Bryce Harper to the Phillies.
Juan Soto, the team’s 21-year-old left fielder, has shown no signs of a sophomore slump following his breakout rookie campaign in 2018. He’s hitting .297 with a .946 OPS, 15 homers and 54 RBI. His home run and RBI totals both rank second on the ballclub behind Rendon.
And then there’s Howie Kendrick, who is experiencing a career renaissance in a Nationals uniform. Always considered a dangerous hitter, the 35-year-old veteran has stepped up his game this year, posting a team-high .322 average with 12 homers, 45 RBI and a .934 OPS.
Of course, the Nats’ offense is a lot deeper than just three hitters. Speedy shortstop Trea Turner and steady right fielder Adam Eaton are always dangerous at the top of the order, while first baseman Matt Adams, catcher Kurt Suzuki and rookie center fielder Victor Robles have all helped stabilize the order from top to bottom.
Now 45-41, the Nationals have a great opportunity to finish the first half of the season on a high note with the lowly Kansas City Royals (29-59) coming to town for a three-game weekend series.
Of course, this hot streak won’t mean a thing if recent attempts to stabilize the bullpen don’t pan out down the stretch, or if second-year manager Davey Martinez manages to somehow disrupt whatever chemistry the team has recently developed. Of the two, Martinez may be the biggest threat to the Nats’ success going forward, as he still looks incredibly lost at times. If that continues, general manager Mike Rizzo and principal owner Mark Lerner are going to have a decision to make once the weather cools off significantly.
For now though, this Nationals team appears capable, at the very least, of getting back to the postseason after a one-year absence. And while another first-round exit is a possibility if that does happen, it’s hard to discount the potential of a club that many considered dead in the water just six weeks ago.