Reporting David Elfin
Your fingernails have been chewed. You have cursed your television screen. You have yelled at the umpires. Got it out of your system, Nats fans? Good.
Sure, your heroes were swept this past weekend in Atlanta. Bully for the Braves, who won again last night in Miami to move within five games of the front-running Nats in the National League East.
Have no fear, you faint of heart followers. Washington has 16 games left to 14 for Atlanta. If the Nats merely go 8-8, the Braves would have to go 12-2 – on top of their current four-game winning streak – just to forge a tie for the division title.
And of course, that’s just winning the NL East. While Washington’s magic number to take the division is 11, it’s just three to clinch a playoff berth, something that could happen as soon as tomorrow night if Jordan Zimmermann (10-8, 3.01 earned run average, seventh in the NL) beats the struggling Dodgers and Aaron Harang (9-9, 3.79) tonight at Nats Park and John Lannan (3-0, 2.41) follows suit against Josh Beckett (6-13, 4.94) 24 hours later.
The regular season ends two weeks from tomorrow. Does anyone really think that Washington’s 79-year drought without postseason baseball isn’t going to be history before the 2012 season is?
While it certainly wasn’t a welcome development to be swept at Turner Field, especially if the Nats and Braves meet again in the NL division series next month, losing 2-1 last Friday to Atlanta’s new ace, Chris Medlen, and then 5-4 the next night before Washington’s 19-game winner Gio Gonzalez lost Sunday’s series finale on national TV.
Having had my baseball team ripped away and taken to Texas when I was growing up in the District and having covered more than my share of losing teams during my three decades-plus as a sportswriter, I’m far from a Pollyanna when it comes to Washington sports, but I refuse to get down on the Nats even though they were outscored 9-1 by the Braves over the final 16 innings in Atlanta.
Manager Davey Johnson’s crew is still a game and a half ahead of NL Central champion-in-waiting Cincinnati for the majors’ best record. One more curly W and the Nats will be Washington’s first team with 90 victories since the American League champion Senators won 99 in 1933 before losing the World Series to the then-New York Giants.
What’s more, the Nats were 5-2 against the Reds this season, 10-8 against the Braves, 5-1 against the NL West-leading San Francisco Giants and are 3-1 against the defending World Champion St. Louis Cardinals, who currently hold a narrow edge over the Dodgers for the league’s second and final playoff spot.
The best news for the Nats during the past week was how well Lannan pitched last Wednesday in his first start since replacing Stephen Strasburg, the erstwhile ace who has been shut down for the year as part of his recovery from elbow surgery. Lannan shut out the Mets on five hits in 5-2/3 innings in New York. Strasburg really couldn’t have done any better.
Washington has the NL’s best pitching (3.27 ERA) with its second-most strikeouts (1,206). Its offense ranks fourth (.261, 653 runs) and its 173 homers – 20 of which came in a five day-stretch that ended Sept. 8 — are second. The Nats are even second in fielding (.984) with just 81 errors (third).
Yes, Strasburg won’t be available come playoff time, but Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler and Lannan all have ERAs below 3.19 as do relievers Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett, Craig Stammen, Ryan Mattheus and Tom Gorzelanny.
Second baseman Danny Espinosa, who had a horrible series against the Braves, has an ailing left shoulder and likely won’t face the Dodgers. Left fielder Michael Morse missed the weekend with a bruised left wrist. However, the rest of the lineup, led by third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, first baseman Adam La Roche and shortstop Ian Desmond, has been going gangbusters. Heck, Bryce Harper is just one homer shy of becoming just the second teenager to smack 20 in a season.
Maybe I’m a latter-day version of Alfred E. Newman, but the like the Mad Magazine cover boy, I have to say, “What, me worry?”
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