After a season full of slumps, injuries and struggles, the Washington Nationals have hit their stride. On Monday night, the team grabbed its seventh straight win and third straight walkoff, with Adam LaRoche's solo homer in the 11th inning downing the Arizona Diamondbacks. That's part of a recent hot stretch that's helped the Nationals open up a six-game lead in the National League East and almost ensure a trip to the postseason.
What's impressive about that division lead is how quickly Washington opened it up. As recently as July 20, the Nationals and Braves were locked in a tie for first in the East, but since then, the Nats have gone 17-10 — a .630 winning percentage — while Atlanta has stumbled to an 11-16 mark. With 70 wins, Washington is now tied with the Dodgers and Brewers for the most in the NL, and the Nationals' .569 winning percentage is .009 ahead of Milwaukee for the best such mark in the Senior Circuit. In terms of division leads, Washington's six-game advantage is the biggest among the three NL leaders and is the second-biggest in MLB; only Baltimore (7 1/2 games) has a bigger cushion. All of that has given the Nationals a near-lock status for the playoffs, with Baseball Prospectus estimating their odds for making the postseason at 97.7 before Monday's action. Only the Athletics and Angels are better bets.
Nonetheless, for as dominant as the Nationals have looked lately, they've needed some late-inning heroics to keep their current winning streak going. On Monday, trailing 3-2 in the eighth inning, Washington got a double from Denard Span followed by a triple from Anthony Rendon to tie it up. A sacrifice fly from Jayson Werth gave the Nationals the 4-3 lead going into the ninth, but Tyler Clippard, who was filling in for the struggling Rafael Soriano at closer, gave up a game-tying homer to David Peralta to send the game into extras. Then, after two Diamondbacks threats were erased in the 10th and 11th innings, LaRoche took a 3-1 breaking ball from reliever Will Harris and smashed it off the facade of the second deck in right field for the game winner.
While LaRoche's blast sent the team home happy, Washington has to be concerned about its bullpen at the moment. Soriano has been scored upon in three of his last four appearances, including a three-run meltdown against the Pirates on Sunday. He's surrendered 10 runs in 11 2/3 innings since the All-Star break — admittedly a small sample size, but a worrisome figure nonetheless. Monday's blown save aside, Clippard has been excellent as Soriano's setup man, but offseason addition Jerry Blevins has struggled as Washington's lefty, necessitating a trade for veteran southpaw Matt Thornton. Former closer Drew Storen, meanwhile, has settled into a role as the team's top seventh-inning arm, but his weak peripherals (primarily a low strikeout-per-nine ratio) aren't promising.
What Washington needs is for its starting pitching staff to carry the load, and recently, the rotation's done just that. During the Nationals' current seven-game win streak, Washington's starters have completed seven or more innings four times (Jordan Zimmermann, who went seven innings against Arizona, was held to 6 1/3 in his prior start). That streak includes two seven-inning outings from Doug Fister, who has emerged as the team's ace ahead of Stephen Strasburg. The continued struggles of Gio Gonzalez (92 ERA+ and a walks-per-nine rate of 3.7) are worrisome, but the unheralded performance of Tanner Roark (12-7, 2.93 ERA) coupled with Fister, Strasburg and Zimmermann give the team an imposing rotation that can match up with any other NL or AL contender.
Thankfully for the Nationals, their hot stretch and Atlanta's slump have bought the team time and space to work through any issues before October. If they can get Gonzalez back to a semblance of his 2012 form, they'll have a top four better than any team in baseball. That will lighten the load on the bullpen as well as the team tries to get the mercurial Soriano back in the groove. Offensively, the Nationals will get a boost when Ryan Zimmerman returns, likely in late September.
Of course, it wouldn't hurt if the Nationals could find a solution to their biggest obstacle in 2014: The Braves. Atlanta is 9-4 against Washington this season — 22-10 since the start of 2013 — and the two teams have six head-to-head games remaining this season. A strong finish to the year against their biggest rivals would go a long way toward establishing the Nationals as the NL's top World Series contender.