WASHINGTON — The Nationals crossed a new milestone this week, though you may not have noticed.
Never before in team history have the Nationals held a nine-game division lead so early in the season, as they did heading into Tuesday’s game against Pittsburgh, a feat that’s somewhat extraordinary to accomplish by May 16.
“Nine-game leads, they’re few and far between,” Nationals GM Mike Rizzo told The Sports Junkies Thursday. “I don’t know in our three division-winning seasons if we had a nine-game lead the whole season. I know one year we won the league by nine, but that was towards the end.”
Previously, the earliest the Nats ever held a nine-game lead was Aug. 18 of last season. They peaked with a 10.5-game lead on Sept. 2, and finished the season with an eight-game lead over the second-place Mets.
Prior to that, their earliest nine-game lead was Sept. 19, 2014. That club peaked with a 17-game lead over the Mets to close out the season.
“It’s unique. It’s remarkable. A lot of things have to fall right,” Rizzo said. “We’re playing extremely well. The Mets are not playing well. They’ve been injured and they’ve struggled. The Marlins, who we respect very well — they’ve got a great, young lineup — have struggled. The Braves have played extremely well and they’re a young, rebuilding team, and so are the Phillies.”
“The Phillies play us as tough as anybody and we have played the Phillies I think 12 times out of our first 37 games,” he said. “With some scheduling quirks, we play in our division a lot, and we got hot at the start of the season, and head-to-head we’ve been pretty good against these teams.”
Incredibly, the Nationals, who now lead the Braves by eight games, have jumped out to such a commanding lead despite their bullpen being the worst in the National League (5.32 ERA). That’s all thanks to having the best offense in Major League Baseball.
The Nats lead all teams with 237 runs scored, which is 16 more runs than the Brewers, who have the second-highest scoring offense, have scored. The Brewers, by the way, have played in two more games than the Nats this season.
“We look internally at ourselves and how we’re playing more so than how the National League is playing, or how our division is playing,” Rizzo said. “We play each other so many times, not only in the regular season, but in spring training so many times, that there’s no fooling anybody. There’s no masking anything.”
“Theses guys know how to dissect a lineup against us and we know how to attack their hitters, so it’s usually the team that plays the best, that’s healthiest and is peaking at the right time gets out of the gate fast,” he said. “With all this intra-league play, we have an opportunity to beat each other up early on in the season and we’ve played well so far.”
If team history is any indicator, the Nats are fast-tracking toward their fourth NL East title in six years.