2014 playoff team preview: Washington Nationals
SI.com is previewing all 10 playoff teams as they begin their chase for a World Series title. You can find each team's individual capsule here.
Regular-Season Record/Finish: 96-66, first in NL East
How They Got Here: On July 18, the Nationals lost to the Brewers and fell one game behind the Braves in the NL East, a division that at the time looked like it was going to be a dogfight until the final days of September. Washington then won its next four games, a mini-win streak that ignited a two-month tear that turned the NL East into baseball’s least interesting drama: The Nats would end up taking the division by 17 games, the largest margin in baseball.
In winning their second NL East crown in three years, the Nationals overcame injuries to Wilson Ramos, Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper. They did it with Denard Span, Adam LaRoche and Doug Fister all spending time on the disabled list. They did it with their All-Star closer, Rafael Soriano, imploding in September. They were led by a new manager, Matt Williams, and a darkhorse MVP candidate, Anthony Rendon, whose 6.3 Wins Above Replacement, according to Fangraphs, was the second-highest figure for a position player in the NL. They made an impact move at the deadline, acquiring infielder Asdrubal Cabrera, who added depth to the lineup. They finished the season with the most wins in the league, the best run differential and they head in into the postseason with no glaring weaknesses.
And now they are here, with an opportunity at redemption after their 2012 postseason flameout and disappointing 2013 regular season. "We were humbled last year," LaRoche said. "Most of these guys were here last year, when we were expected to win it, but I think we all learned that no matter how good your team is on paper, no matter how good people say your team is, you have to go out and do it. We're going to look back at last year as a good thing."
Why They'll Win: The biggest reason to believe in the Nationals? They have the best playoff rotation of the remaining contenders. Stephen Strasburg, the NL's strikeout king, is coming off a brilliant September (1.13 ERA in five starts), and will start Game 1 of the Division Series — and yet he may be the third-best pitcher on the staff right now. Jordan Zimmermann, one of the hottest pitchers on the planet, capped off the best season of his career with Washington's first no-hitter on Sunday. And Fister improved to 16-6 and lowered his ERA to a career-best 2.41 with a three-hit shutout of the Marlins last Friday that clinched the league's top seed for the Nats.
The biggest question facing Williams is what to do in Game 4: Should he go with Tanner Roark, whose 21 quality starts rank third on the staff, or Gio Gonzalez, who is 4-1 with a 2.48 ERA with 31 strikeouts in 32 2/3 innings in September? Gonzalez, who has shown more of an ability to overpower a lineup, is likely to get the start, since Roark — exceptional in relief in 2013 — has more bullpen experience.
The offense, which finished second in the league in runs scored, is also firing on all cylinders. Over the last two months, no NL team has hit more home runs. In September, Rendon (.338/.415/.493) and Span (.317/.391/.476) have been hot, and so has the notoriously streaky LaRoche, who tied for second in the league in home runs (seven) and RBI (22) on the month. One swing can change a series in October, and Washington has no bigger power threat than LaRoche, whose 26 homers led the team.
A dominant starting staff and an offense peaking at just the right time: That's a formula that can give the nation’s capital its first World Series title in 90 years.
Why They Won't: It’s hard to find flaws with this team, but there are questions. For starters: Can the Nats trust Drew Storen to be a shutdown closer in the postseason? The righthander, who reinvented himself with mechanical adjustments at midseason last year, has now posted 23 straight scoreless appearances going back to Aug. 7. He looks like he's ready to dominate this postseason, but because of his Game 5 meltdown in the 2012 Division Series, there will be questions, fair or not, about whether he can get the biggest outs for Washington. One blown save early in October, and the bullpen could suddenly look like it’s in disarray.
Also: What will Zimmerman's role be? His recent return from a torn right hamstring gives the Nationals even more depth, and adding his bat to the lineup could be huge. But his baserunning and fielding — he can play first base, third or in leftfield — might be a liability if he's not able to operate at full strength. And then there's this: How will Williams do under the bright lights of October? We tend to overrate a manager's impact, but this is the time of year when their moves can swing a series. Williams has dealt with injuries and controversies in leading the Nationals to 96 wins. But he's still embarking on his first postseason journey as a skipper, which means he'll be tested anew.