The Nationals received good news last night, even after their eight-game winning streak ended in Arizona. By the time their plane had landed in San Francisco, they could watch the Mets hold on for a victory over the Braves, a result that kept their lead in the National League East at 4 ½ games.
Despite the loss, the Nationals also remained on top of all of baseball with a 71-44 record. A major theme of the season, which has surpassed most all external expectations, has been how the Nationals have withstood injuries. They’ve played without Jayson Werth and Michael Morse and Wilson Ramos and Ryan Zimmerman and Drew Storen and Ian Desmond and many others, and they have still won and won. A lot has gone wrong.
But for them to have reached their current status, having overachieved in the eyes of pretty much every observer, a lot has had to go right for the Nationals. They have absorbed a lot of misfortune, but many key developments swung in their favor, too. So what are the factors that have pushed them beyond what people expected?
It is a fun question to answer, because expectations morph so much as the season moves along that you can forget what the narrative suggested in spring training. (We’re still waiting for Brett Carroll to add pop off the bench and wondering when the Nationals will fulfill John Lannan’s trade request.) There are, of course, several factors.
We can start with the starting rotation, the heart of this Nationals team. Stephen Strasburg has been as dominant as advertised, maybe even a smidge better. Jordan Zimmermann has taken his game to another level, a larger leap than he was expected to make. Gio Gonzalez stepped forward, but more so revealed to the baseball world what had been happening for a few years in Oakland — an ace was in the making.
Edwin Jackson has sneakily been better than expected — his 3.74 ERA is more than half a run better than his career average. Ross Detwiler has handled far larger a role than anyone thought he would when the year began.
Offensively, the largest factor in regard to overachieving has been Ian Desmond, who has performed beyond any external expectations. He improved his OPS by over .100 points and has jacked one less homer than in his previous two seasons combined. Despite missing a couple weeks, he still leads Nationals position players with 3.6 wins above replacement, per FanGraphs.com.
Adam LaRoche’s first season in Washington made everyone forget what a solid player he is — and this year, he’s been better than usual. LaRoche faced questions about his health coming into this season, and he has played in 108 of 115 games.
LaRoche is outperforming his career averages in hitting (.268 to .267), on-base percentage (.343 to .337) and slugging (.508 to .481). His 128 OPS+ would be the second-best of his career and best since 2006. He is not only playing like himself again, but a slightly better version of himself.
Bryce Harper came to the Nationals earlier than anyone, including the GM and owner, expected. Despite his second-half skid, Harper has provided more to this year’s Nationals than could have been hoped for. Offensively, in sum, he has performed at a league-average level. That seems like a disappointment given his smoldering start, but in the long view, it’s not. It’s a major contribution.
The list goes on. Michael Morse and Jayson Werth both missed a ton of games, but when they’ve played, Morse has reprised his 2011 slugging, and Werth has returned to the form he showed in Philadelphia. Neither was a given.
When they were out, the Nationals turned to their farm system. They were well-prepared, and Mike Rizzo’s penchant for drafting athletes played a part. Tyler Moore and Steve Lombardozzi became outfielders in a span of weeks, and their versatility helped the Nationals to replace injured players.
Add all of that up, and you have a team picked by consensus to win 85 to 90 games that has taken the league by storm. The Nationals have faced plenty of adversity and had many things go wrong. But they have also had a lot of things go right, part luck and part design. To reach the point the Nationals have, you need both.
FROM THE POST
Over the weekend, Jason Reid offered up a playoff run primer.
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Syracuse 3, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre 1: Yunesky Maya allowed one run in six innings on three hits and no walks, striking out one. Christian Garcia allowed no runs in two relief innings on one hit and one walk, striking out two. Carlos Rivero went 2 for 3.
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre 1, Syracuse 0: Eury Perez went 2 for 3, raising his average with Syracuse to .337. Mike MacDougal allowed no runs in one relief on one hot and one walk, striking out. He has not allowed an earned runs in 4 2/3 innings since signing with the Nationals.
Binghamton 7, Harrisburg 2: Brian Goodwin went 0 for 5 with two strikeouts. Jimmy Van Ostrand went 1 for 1 with a homer. Sean Nicol went 3 for 4.
Winston-Salem 7, Potomac 0: Alex Meyer allowed one earned run in six innings on four hits and no walks, striking out seven. In his first five starts at Potomac, Meyer has a 0.93 ERA in 29 innings with 26 strikeouts and six walks. Anthony Rendon went 0 for 2 and was ejected in the fourth inning after arguing balls and strikes.
Hagerstown was off.
Auburn 8, Mahoning Valley 4: Shawn Pleffner went 3 for 4. Carlos Lopez went 1 for 4 with a home run.