Nationals rocket into first thanks to hot streak, but concerns still remain
Three weeks ago, the Nationals hit rock bottom. After stumbling out of the gate by going 7–13 in its first 20 games, losing a third of its lineup to the disabled list and watching shortstop Ian Desmond commit eight errors in his first dozen games, Washington fell apart in an 8–4 loss to the Braves on April 27. With the defeat, the team's sixth in a row, the Nats slid into last place in the National League East, eight games behind the Mets, who had ridden an 11-game winning streak into first place.
As bad as the Nationals looked, things seemed even bleaker the next night in Atlanta, when they fell behind the Braves, 9–1, in the second inning and 10–2 in the fourth. But Washington then staged the largest comeback in team history, rallying to win the game 13–12 with veteran second baseman Dan Uggla delivering the decisive blow in the top of the ninth inning, hitting a three-run home run off Braves closer Jason Grilli.
The Nationals have been coming back ever since. In the 21 games since they snapped their six-game losing streak, the Nats have gone 17–4, including a 3–1 record against the Mets, to climb all the way back up to first place. In Tuesday night’s 8–6 win over the Yankees in D.C., the Nationals once again trailed, falling behind 6–2 in the middle of the fifth before rallying to tie the game and force extra innings, where they ultimately won it on the 10th walk-off home run of Ryan Zimmerman’s career, a two-run shot in the bottom of the 10th off previously untouchable closer Andrew Miller.
Arguably the leading World Series favorite heading into the season, Washington now appears to be exactly where it belongs: in first place in its division and streaking toward a seemingly inevitable third playoff berth in the last four years. However, for all of their hot play and dramatic comebacks, there are still some concerns about the state of the Nats' roster.
Start in the vaunted rotation, where Stephen Strasburg is still looking for his second quality start of the year and has allowed 11 runs (10 earned) in 8 1/3 innings over his last two starts. He's not the only Nationals starter struggling, either. Doug Fister was lit up for seven runs in two innings last Thursday after a lengthy rain delay in San Diego, then hit the disabled list with a flexor strain in his right forearm. That prompted the team to recall prospect A.J. Cole, who worked three clean innings and picked up a save in Washington's blowout win the next day. Meanwhile, Gio Gonzalez has allowed 11 runs in 10 innings in his last two starts and is now sporting a 4.94 ERA.
On the other side of the ball, two of the three regulars who opened the season on the disabled list have yet to regain full health. Jayson Werth, who returned on April 13 after having off-season shoulder surgery, has hit just .208/.294/.287 to date and was plunked on the left wrist by an Odrisamer Despaigne pitch last Friday. While he managed to avoid any serious (or, at least, easily detectable) damage in the wrist, Werth was nonetheless placed back on the DL Tuesday and will likely have to start his season from scratch whenever he is able to return.
Meanwhile, Anthony Rendon, who opened the season on the DL with a medial collateral ligament sprain in his left knee, suffered an oblique strain during his minor league rehab assignment the same night as the Nationals’ big comeback against the Braves and only just resumed baseball activities over the weekend. To put those losses in context, Rendon and Werth were Washington's two most valuable position players last year by Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement, at 6.5 and 4.0, respectively; Rendon ranked fourth among all NL hitters in bWAR.
Given all of that, the Nationals’ surge to the top of the NL East standings seems even more remarkable, and that's where the quality and depth of their roster comes to light. Strasburg and Gonzalez may be scuffling and Fister may be hurt, but Jordan Zimmermann, after a poor start, has posted a 2.42 ERA in his last four starts. Max Scherzer, meanwhile, has posted a 1.74 ERA on the year, struck out 29.5% of the hitters he has faced (fourth-best in the majors), averaged better than seven innings pitched per start and leads the NL in Fielding Independent Pitching (2.03). As for the rest of the rotation, Gonzalez is due for some positive correction given his opponents’ .371 batting average on balls in play and his own 3.14 FIP, and Cole is a well-regarded prospect (he ranked 30th in baseball before the year per Baseball Prospectus) whose relief outing last week should go a long way toward restoring his confidence heading into his second major league start.
The key figure in Washington's recent surge, however, has been Bryce Harper. Over the team's last 13 games, Harper has gone 23-for-44 (.523) with 10 home runs, 11 walks, 23 RBIs and 19 runs scored, striking out just five times and adding a pair of stolen bases in as many attempts for good measure. To put that in context, Harper has already sailed past his 2014 home run and RBI totals; 40 games into the year, he is seven homers and 21 RBIs shy of his full-season career highs. Thanks in large part to that recent outburst, Harper leads the majors on on-base percentage (.472), slugging percentage (.737), OPS (1.211), OPS+ (224), runs (37), RBIs (38) and walks (37). He also leads the NL in homers (15), total bases (101), intentional walks (five) and, most significant given his injury issues over the last two seasons, plate appearances (176). The threat of an injury will continue to loom, but it’s now undeniable that the 22-year-old is in the process of making the long-awaited leap to superstardom.
Haper isn't the only Nats regular impressing of late. Centerfielder Denard Span has hit .327/.370/.510 since returning from the DL on April 19. Catcher Wilson Ramos had a 19-game hitting streak dating back to April 24, during which he batted .365/.392/.459, but was snapped Wednesday in New York. Danny Espinosa has reclaimed the second base job after two brutal seasons, hitting .319/.405/.522 since April 27 to ease the loss of Rendon. Desmond has curbed his errors (just three in the last 28 games) and hit a solid .292/.324/.446 over his last 16 games. Yunel Escobar has been on fire for the last two weeks, going 24-for-59 (.407) over 15 games to raise his season OBP to .384. Altogether, the Nationals have scored nearly 6.7 runs per game during their 21-game hot streak. That pace is bound to slow, but it suggests that the loss of Werth can be absorbed, at least in the short term.
Meanwhile, the Mets—the only other team in the division with a positive run differential and the only one within four games of Washington in the standings—have gone 10–15 since the end of their 11-game winning streak. In fact, New York is 12–18 on the season outside of those 11 games, all of which were intradivision contests against non-Nationals opponents.
The Nats still have three key players on the disabled list, one of their expected aces has been ineffective, and they are still only tied for first place, so it is likely too much of a reach to say that it will be smooth sailing from here. Still, Washington has largely silenced the concerns that existed after their poor start, and once again seems worthy of being considered a postseason favorite.