by Patrick CannonBy Patrick Cannon

Before we get to baseball, chew on this factoid: From now until February 2015, some form of football will be played each weekend. I don’t do math but that must be like 100 weekends.

This serves as official notice to wives and girlfriends that in approximately three weeks men everywhere will once again turn into vapid, unavailable slobs for the foreseeable future. “Can you take little Timmy to soccer practice?” “No honey, I have to study the waiver wire for my fantasy football team. Tell Timmy to hitchhike.”

Baseball holds the fleeting spotlight of the sports world for only a few more weeks. While the National Pastime still has your attention why don’t we discuss the five reasons why the Nats will win the NL East and give us something other than football to lose sleep over this fall?

1. Pitching – It’s a cliché at this point but the NL East is a two-horse race. It was cute of the Marlins to stick around and play competitively after losing Jose Fernandez but they aren’t a serious threat to catch the Nats. The Nats don’t score a lot of runs (see #2) thus pitching has been and will continue to be the identity of this team.

Fortunately, Tanner Roark has turned our staff from a strong foursome to a five-man crew that can only be rivaled by Oakland and Detroit. Strasburg needs to figure out his road woes and the backend of the bullpen could use some improvement but that is splitting hairs. The good news is that unlike 2012, our ace isn’t getting shelved and the rest of the staff is now a nice mix of experience and youth that should not scare easily under the bright lights of pressure-packed baseball.

These are the guys who will help the Nats pull away from the Braves and bring October baseball back to D.C.

2. Hitting – We don’t score a lot of runs. Four is the magic number. The Nats win more than 90 percent of their games when scoring four or more runs. Right now the Nats are 11th in the league with 4.17 runs per game but they are third in run differential at +72, which is a credit to the nastiness of the pitching staff.

The bad news for the rest of the NL is that, even at 11 games over .500, the Nats batting has not come close to clicking on all cylinders yet. Desmond will get his average up. Ramos will remind us why he was our Opening Day cleanup hitter. Span’s July has been promising but likely unsustainable. Werth and Rendon have been the closest thing to consistent throughout the year and there is no reason to believe they won’t keep it up.

Take solace in the fact that Mike Rizzo only made one trade at the deadline to improve our offense and it was for a guy named Assdribble. In Rizzo we trust. And if … I mean, when Harper heats up, watch out. This leads me to my next point:

3. Harper – Like it or not, he is our sparkplug. Rendon is clutch, but emotionless. Laroche is a rock. Desmond hits the ball like it owes him money. Werth is the most likely to beat someone to death with a club for looking at him the wrong way — but we need Harper to come into form for meaningful baseball. This is a guy who can change the momentum in a game with one play on either side of the field. In 2012, Harper played the best baseball of his life down the stretch.

I’ll be the first to describe Harper’s play this year as abysmal, but I think he gets out of his slump just in time to begin feeding off of the playoff excitement and helps the Nats host a playoff series.

4. Strength of Schedule – According to CBS Sports, the Nats have a slight advantage over the Braves in second-half strength of schedule. The teams meet each other nine more times this season. If the Braves continue their recent dominance in the series they will make me look like an idiot for making this list.
Obviously the Nats must continue to avoid long losing streaks and a weak second-half schedule should help with that.

I am not counting on this to be an easy race but I think that the Nats will find a way to split the head-to-head series and eventually their domination of seemingly every other team in the NL (minus our unicorn in St. Louis) will be decisive.

5. Health – Don’t get me wrong, losing Zimm hurts. Losing his bat and his experience for the entire season would be devastating but it certainly shouldn’t keep this team out of the playoffs. A few more injuries and this list becomes a moot point. However, the Nats are the healthiest team in their division and they handled an early waive of injuries well learning to play with diverse lineup.

That experience should come in handy down the stretch when depth is tested.

This is where the list ends and the gripe begins…

Please note the intentional omission of Rafael Soriano from this list. The look on Matt Williams face when he calls in his closer rivals that of a father watching his teenage daughter ride off for a date on the back of a Harley. It just can’t end well. You can tout all the stats you want about Soriano’s efficiency this year and how calm we all should be, but the bottom line is that he gives everyone anxiety, from coaches to teammates to fans.

There is no Enter Sandman feeling with Soriano and that scares the crap out of me. Teams that win championships have a guy that closes the door after the 24th out. Soriano was brought in to assure that the collapse of the 2012 post-season would never happen again. I would rather own beachfront property in Crimea right now than have Soriano coming in for the ninth inning of a one-run elimination game.

Cold-blooded closers don’t grow on trees but what do the Nats do if Soriano isn’t looking up to the task by October? Hopefully we are fortunate enough to face such a conundrum. Until then, grab your fantasy football magazine and tell little Timmy that Daddy has work to do.

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