It may be heresy in these parts to suggest that the Nats still have some growing up to do despite their major league-leading 98 victories last season.
However, for all of its 100 victories in 2012 (counting the pair in the National League Division Series against St. Louis) and five All-Stars – shortstop Ian Desmond (2012), third baseman Ryan Zimmerman (2009), starting pitchers Gio Gonzalez and Tyler Clippard (both 2012), and reliever Tyler Clippard (2011) — Washington hasn’t won as a team when it counts. Heck, last year was the first that the Nats posted a winning record since they came to the nation’s capital in 2005.
Contrast that track record with that of San Francisco, the team they visit tonight for the start of a three-game series. Beginning in 2009 when they finished third in the NL West with an 88-74 record, the Giants averaged a fine but not spectacular 90 victories over the next four seasons. However, manager Bruce Bochy’s club won two division crowns and two World Series championships during that span.
In 2010, San Francisco and Atlanta were tied 1-1 as the NLDS moved south. The Giants won the next two games and then disposed of two-time defending NL champion Philadelphia in six games in the Championship Series before whipping Texas in five in the World Series.
Last fall, San Francisco lost both its home games in the NLDS but won all three in Cincinnati, taking Game 3 in extra innings. In the NLCS, the Giants trailed the Cardinals 3-1 but outscored the defending world champions by a staggering 20-1 in sweeping the final three games. San Francisco then swept AL champion Detroit for its second World Series title in three years after winning just one from 1934-2009.
Catcher Buster Posey was voted MVP after being the only Giant with more than 12 homers or 63 RBI. His .336 batting average made him one of just two San Francisco regulars to hit better than .288. Posey also handled a pitching staff in which all five starters won 10-16 games, there was no real closer and 2008-09 Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum posted a horrendous 5.18 earned run average.
And now a quarter of the way into the 2013 season, the Giants are only a game out of the NL West lead despite their current 1-5 slide. Meanwhile, the Nats have been looking up at the front-running Braves in the NL East during most of the first seven weeks.
Washington will face Ryan Vogelsong, 2012 ace Matt Cain and red-hot 23-year-old left hander Madison Bumgarner tonight, tomorrow night and Wednesday afternoon, respectively. The Nats will counter with usual long reliever Zach Duke (filling in for ailing fifth starter Ross Detwiler), Strasburg and Gonzalez.
Last season, Washington dominated the matchups with San Francisco, winning five of the six games with a whopping 45-24 scoring advantage. The most memorable contest came on July 5 when the Nats, having clobbered Lincecum and Bumgarner the previous nights, trailed Cain 5-1 through six innings. Desmond and second baseman Danny Espinosa homered back-to-back. En route to Rookie of the Year honors, center fielder Bryce Harper doubled to score pinch hitter Mark DeRosa and make it 5-4. In the ninth, Harper singled home pinch-hitter Tyler Moore and then scored the game-winner when San Francisco shortstop Brandon Crawford’s poor throw allowed slow-footed first baseman Adam LaRoche to reach on a grounder.
That was far from the only dramatic victory that Washington pulled off last season, but sweeping the Giants, who came as the NL West leaders and had that recent history of success, certainly helped fuel the young Nats’ rising confidence. San Francisco had been 74-1 in its past 75 games with a three-run lead until its last two nights at Nats Park.
“We’re getting that sense that we’re never out of it,” LaRoche said after the comeback. “Somebody new is going to come through every night. … That’s something really good teams have.”
That’s something that the Giants have had the last five seasons, especially last October. Pudgy third baseman Pablo Sandoval was the World Series MVP. On the brink of his 37th birthday, part-time second baseman Marco Scutaro was the NLCS MVP while playing for his fifth team in six years.
So far this year, the Nats haven’t been similarly blessed. While LaRoche is coming on after a horrific April and Harper has been battered and slumping after a sizzling start, only Desmond and new center fielder Denard Span have been consistent offensive threats. Supposed No. 3 starter Jordan Zimmermann and new closer Rafael Soriano have been the only reliable pitchers as Strasburg and Gonzalez have yet to get into rhythm. Zimmerman, right fielder Jayson Werth and catcher Wilson Ramos (twice) have already spent time on the disabled list.
And yet, Washington is just three games out of a wild card spot and a half game closer to the top of the NL East. So if the Nats can repeat their 2012 dominance of the Giants the next three nights …
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 three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin