The Nationals have not played better, or become a happier story, since their very first season in Washington. Their best record after 73 games between 2005 and now came last year, when they were 33-40 and sitting in last place for good.
Now they’re 36-37, maybe a few hours away from a .500 record. They’ve won 9 for 10 and 14 of 20 and they’re five games out of the wild card standings. Yes, it’s preposterous to look at wild card standings in June, but in Washington that really means something. It’s summer and the games matter. You could not say that five years running.
Their streak has been stuffed with improbable wins. In three of those nine wins, the winning run has record in the ninth inning or later, including last night, when they entered the bottom of the ninth down 5-1. In another, they fell down 6-0. In another, they gave up 18 hits.
As the Nationals have started to make people take notice, the question becomes, can they keep this up? There are a few reasons to think so. On a day when optimism seems easy, here they are:
Their run differential says it’s not a fluke. The Nationals have scored 292 runs and allowed 284, and their plus-8 runs ranks 14th in the majors and eighth in the National League. Based solely on runs scored and allowed, they ought to be one game above .500 instead of below.
Ryan Zimmerman will play more. This is obvious. Since Zimmerman returned, the Nationals have gone 6-1, and while a seven-game sampling doesn’t signify a whole lot, his presence changes so much about the Nationals. “We were kind of circling the date for when we would get him back in the lineup,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. That they’re rolling with him is not all coincidence.
Jayson Werth will play better. Through the first 73 games of his Nationals tenure, Werth has played well below his career mean. After hitting .282/.380/.506 with a 130 OPS+ over the past four seasons, Werth has hit .233/.334/.409 with a 105 OPS+.
Age could be a factor in that decline. At 32, he’s at the end or just coming out of the peak for a typical major leaguer. But the drop associated with that, for this season, should not be quite so precipitous. The Nationals have gotten a performance that’s basically been league average out of Werth so far, and they can expect better for the remainder of this year.
The starting pitching can keep it up. Nationals starters carried the Nationals’ offense through its bleak start to the season, and it does not seem like a leap to believe they will continue to pitch like they have. Their collective 3.88 ERA is not far from either there 3.96 FIP or their 4.03 xFIP, and a staff with groundball specialists like John Lannan and Jason Marquis could be reasonably expected to slightly outperform those predictive measures. The starts’ BABIP is .294, which is right in line with the NL average.
The one looming issue that could affect the starters is Jordan Zimmermann’s innings limit. He has thrown 87 2/3 innings in 14 starts, and he will only pitch about 155 innings this season. The Nationals, then, will only get 14 or 15 more starts from the starter who has clearly been their best this season. They will try to rest him at opportune times to lengthen his season – he will probably get skipped coming out of the all-star break, for example.
Once his year ends, the Nationals will likely have to turn to a starter from their farm system. Yunesky Maya has not been the answer, but perhaps Tim Milone, Brad Meyers or Brad Peacock help fill Zimmermann’s void.
The schedule seems favorable. The Nationals will play 49 of their last 89 games against teams that currently have a record worse than .500. For the Nationals, that might not matter a whole lot – oddly, they have a better record against winning teams (20-19) than losing teams (16-18). But still, there’s no scenario in which playing bad teams is more advantageous than playing good teams.
The Nationals also have 48 home games left, as opposed to 41 on the road. The Nats are 20-13 in Washington this season, the seventh-best home record in the majors. They’re also 16-24 on the road, an area in which they showed some improvement by going 6-5 on their last road trip.