Started From the Bottom…
The night was July 24, and the Nationals had just lost 4-2 to the Pirates in Washington – their sixth consecutive loss – and had fallen to 48-53. After the game, Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg said
“We need to win some games,” Strasburg said. “It’s getting to the point where our back’s against the wall.”
The misery and mediocrity didn’t come to an end quickly and before you know it, it was August 7 and the Nats had a record of 54-60, and were 15.5 games back in the NL East. Following a 6-3 loss to the Atlanta Braves that was their fourth consecutive defeat and the sixth in their last eight games, the Washington manager had this to say:
“Lot of ground to make up, but you never know what can happen in this game,” Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. “If nothing else, get our pride back by playing better.”
Many years ago – in the days of the Montreal Expos – this mediocrity would not have been too big of a surprise. But let’s think back a bit more recent to the start of the 2013 MLB season. ESPN.com – like many sites – posted a preview piece that had their “experts'” picks for division, pennant and World Series champions. 29 of their experts picked the Nationals to make the World Series out of 44 total experts. 16 of the experts picked the Nationals to win the World Series, including Jim Bowden, Dave Cameron, Gordon Edes, Tim Kurkjian, Buster Olney, Jon Sciambi, Dan Shulman, Jayson Stark and Rick Sutcliffe. Over at Sports Illustrated, the Washington Nationals were picked as World Series champions by the likes of Tom Verducci and Joe Sheehan, among others.
Why the hype, what with the overwhelming belief throughout baseball that this would be manager Davey Johnson’s last season? Well, the Nats have two of baseball’s great young superstars, Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg. Their rotation also boasts strong arms in Jordan Zimmerman and Gio Gonzalez, and the bullpen features the likes of Rafael Soriano, Tyler Clippard and Craig Stammen. Nationals GM Mike Rizzo certainly was not afraid to make moves this offseason, adding Dan Haren and Ross Ohlendorf to the rotation as well as the aforementioned Soriano to the bullpen and bringing back Adam LaRoche.
What went wrong?
In the 1st half of the season, the Nationals had a .301 wOBA (T-25th in MLB), 88 wRC+ (25th in MLB), team batting WAR of 7.6 (23rd in MLB), 21.0 K% (T-7th worst in MLB), 86 homeruns (23rd in MLB) and a .686 OPS (T-24th in MLB). Individually, Kurt Suzuki (.219/.281/.320) and Denard Span (.263/.320/.358) were particularly woeful. On the mound, Dan Haren (4-10, 5.61 ERA, 19 HR, 81 K/17 BB) and Drew Storen (3-2, 4.81 ERA, 6 HR, 41 K/11 BB) were really the only guys to stand out as being significantly below average. As a team, Washington’s FIP was 3.59, 28th in MLB.
When talking the 2013 Washington Nationals, it’s important not to forget about Jayson Werth. Werth – who signed a 7 year deal worth roughly $121.5 million after the 2010 season – was quite woeful in his first season in DC (.232/.330/.389, 20 HR, 58 RBI, 19 SB) and missed half the season due to injury in 2012. This year though, Werth is batting .320/.397/.533 with 23 homeruns and 74 RBI in his age 34 season. Though he missed the month of May due to injury, Werth has been a steady offensive contributor all season long. Outside of Werth though, the second half of the season has seen three regulars contribute OPS’ of .800 or higher; Ryan Zimmerman (.870), Bryce Harper (.868) and Wilson Ramos (.801). And as a team the Nationals rank far greater in the second half offensively, currently fourth in wOBA (.336), fourth in wRC+ (112), fourth in team batting WAR (10.5), T-1st in homeruns (69) and fourth in OPS (.771).
What does it all mean?
As of this writing, the Washington Nationals are on a three game winning streak, have won 9 of their last 10, and sit 4.5 back in the Wild Card race. They finish the season with four at home against the lowly Marlins, and then head on the road for three in St. Louis and three in Arizona. It’s more than likely too little, too late for the Nats and at the end of the year we will likely look back and say that they were a complete and utter bust. However, they have showed signs of life in the second half of the season. Enough signs of life to make you think that the experts were right and that the Washington baseball club could win the World Series? I don’t think so. But enough to make this season quite the intriguing one in the nation’s capitol.