Reporting David Elfin
The surprising Nationals have reached the two-thirds point of their sensational season. They’ve been alone atop the National League East for more than two months. Only Cincinnati has a better record than Washington’s 65-43 mark and only by a game.
Taking three of four this past weekend from the Miami Marlins, one of their former division nemeses, allowed the Nats to head West on a 10-game road trip with a three-game lead over second-place Atlanta even though the Braves are on a 20-7 tear.
The two biggest defeats of Atlanta’s seven during that red-hot span came in Washington on July 21 and 22 after the visitors had stunned the Nats by rallying from an 8-0 deficit against All-Star right hander Stephen Strasburg and then shutting them out the next afternoon. Atlanta had moved within a game and a half of the NL East lead, but victories during the next 24 hours by former Nats rotation mainstay John Lannan and fifth starter Ross Detwiler blunted the Braves’ charge.
Now as the final third of the season begins, Washington manager Davey Johnson’s team is nearly fully healthy. Outfielder Jayson Weth returned Thursday from more than two months on the shelf with a broken wrist and promptly went 5-for-12 with five walks, three runs and a RBI. The Nats won all four games in which Werth played since he came back.
If Werth, who had a horrible Washington debut in 2011 after signing a seven-year, $126 million contract to leave Philadelphia in December 2010, can provide another solid bat (.291 in 110 at-bats) in a lineup that features left fielder Mike Morse (.300), first baseman Adam LaRoche (23 home runs, 71 RBI) and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman (15 homers, 57 RBI), that should make the jobs of baseball’s best pitching staff (3.28 earned run average) that much easier.
Before they come home a week from Friday to face the Mets, whom they swept in New York late last month, the Nats will visit baseball’s worst team, Houston, for four games and middling Arizona and NL West-leading San Francisco for three each. During those same 11 days, the Braves will visit the struggling Phillies and Mets for three games each before playing host to the lousy San Diego Padres for four.
Both Washington and Atlanta should have success during these next four series meaning that the gap between the two doesn’t figure to change much before the Braves visit Nats Park Aug. 20-22 for what could be a very pivotal series.
Strasburg, whose innings limit following last year’s elbow surgery figures to shut him down for the season in mid-September, will still be pitching at that point along with fellow top-flight starters Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann. And Washington All-Star shortstop Ian Desmond figures to be back from the strained left oblique that has sidelined him since July 23 in plenty of time to greet retiring Braves perennial All-Star third baseman Chipper Jones in his final series in the nation’s capital.
So consider the next two weeks a holding pattern for the Nats and Braves before they go at again with the NL East lead quite possibly on the line.
David Elfin began writing about 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. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin