The Washington Nationals are one of baseball’s best teams. Never before this month could I have typed that sentence. In fact, that hasn’t been true of a baseball team from the nation’s capital in 67 years (which did unfairly go 33 seasons without a franchise).
Washington’s starting pitching has been darn near unbeatable and almost unhittable. Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson (until he was clobbered during the first inning last night) and last-minute rotation addition Ross Detwiler have combined for a 2.08 earned run average over 86-2/3 innings while striking out 78 batters and walking just 18. The bullpen has held up nicely even with closer Drew Storen on the disabled list.
The Nats’ bats haven’t been nearly as sharp, especially with last year’s surprise slugger Michael Morse on the shelf until June. All-Star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, second baseman Danny Espinosa and catcher Wilson Ramos all have averages mired in the low .200s as does the center field platoon of Rick Ankiel and Roger Bernadina. It’s scary to think how bad Washington’s offense would be if not for rising young shortstop Ian Desmond and right fielder Jayson Werth and first baseman Adam LaRoche, the free agent busts of 2011, who are all swatting the ball at least a .300 clip.
Of course, the guys with the curly W on their caps are giving 69-year-old manager Davey Johnson even more gray hair with their penchant for Perils of Pauline escapes during their 10-4 start. The Nats are 5-2 in one-run games. Washington’s six victories in its eight home games have comes by scores of 3-2, 2-1, 4-1, 6-3, 1-0 and 3-2.
And that’s where I have to throw a little dose of cold reality on the giddiness that’s enveloping the little team that could. As they prepare to conclude the 11-game homestand with a weekend trio of contests against the mediocre Miami Marlins (7-6), I have to point out that the Nats haven’t exactly been beating up on baseball’s best.
Washington has won four consecutive series to be sure, but its victims were the Chicago Cubs, the New York Mets, Cincinnati and Houston. Those teams are a combined 20-31, 16-21 even if the games against the Nats aren’t included.
None of last year’s National League playoff qualifiers – World Series champion St. Louis, Milwaukee, Philadelphia or Arizona – have yet to face Washington. In fact, Cincinnati, a divisional round loser in 2010, is the only Nats’ opponent so far who reached any of the past three postseasons.
Five N.L. teams other than the Nats have winning records: the Cardinals, Mets, Diamondbacks, Atlanta and the Los Angeles Dodgers have winning records so far, but Washington has only played three of its 14 games (all at New York) against that group.
Look, I was upbeat about the Nats as they came out of spring training. The additions of Gonzalez, Jackson and reliever Brad Lidge have been marvelous. Even in an era of specialization, superb starting pitching can take a ballclub a long way.
Storen should be back soon with Morse and maybe prized prospect Bryce Harper to follow by mid-season. It’s just that fantastic results achieved against weak competition over less than one tenth of the way through the grind that is a 162-game season isn’t enough to convince me that the Nats are the second coming of the Amazin’ Mets of 1969. Not yet, anyway.
David Elfin began covering sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March.