The Nationals’ best offensive weapon? Base running.


(Tommy Gilligan/USA TODAY Sports)
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The Nationals gathered Monday evening for their usual advance meeting, the planning session they employ before the start of every series, and talked about grass. Turf grows thicker and higher at Coors Field than it does at other parks, Manager Matt Williams told his players. They could be on the alert for balls that die quickly, opportunities to bolt an extra 90 feet on the base paths.

This season, the Nationals have used every detail available to excel at running the bases. By most any measure, they have been the best base running team in the National League, running with aggression while giving away few outs.

The Nationals have not hit exceptionally well — their .249/.315/.388 slash line entering Monday night was nearly identical to the National League average of .249/.312/.385. But their 4.19 runs per game ranked third in the NL. The difference between their average hitting and elite scoring derives primarily from their base running.

“It’s DNA,” Williams said. “We established that in spring training. We established that it’s really important to steal bases when we can. And part of our DNA is going first-to-third. We have the capability of doing that. It sets our innings up. Guys are aggressive. That takes a lot of thought, too.”

The Nationals have stolen 50 bases and been caught only nine times, an 85-percent success rate that ranks best in the majors. Entering Monday night, they had taken an extra base — two bases on a single, three bases on a double — on 45 percent of their chances, second in the NL and fifth in the majors. And yet, they had made only 28 outs on the bases, four below the league average.

According to FanGraphs.com’s base running metric, the Nationals have accumulated 5.7 runs above average on the bases — best in the National League and trailing only the Indians (6.8) and Royals (6.3) in the majors.

“It’s just their overall tenacious attitude,” first base coach Tony Tarasco said. “I think that attitude was set from spring training on. Matt Williams decided to make our base running a huge part of the DNA of our team.”

The Nationals reinforce their base running philosophy in every advance meeting. Third base coach Bobby Henley taught base running as a roving instructor in the Nationals’ minor league system prior to this year. He aimed to promote aggression, and it has carried over with him in the third base coach’s box.  Monday night, Henley windmilled home Wilson Ramos as he lumbered from first and tested Carlos Gonzalez’s strong arm with Ryan Zimmerman. Both scored.

“Having been a part of it, I learned how much of an impact Bobby Henley had on that overall attitude and mentality,” Tarasco said. “Having him at third base definitely helps us keep that attitude.”

The Nationals focus on their secondary lead, gathering momentum as a pitcher releases the ball.  During batting practice, once they finish swinging, Nationals hitters take one trip around the bases, simulating how they would do so in a game. They practice their steps around second, trying to cut the angle with precision.

“They’re taking it seriously,” Williams said.

Per FanGraphs’s base running metric, Denard Span has been the Nationals’ best runner. He ranks 11th in the majors at 4.2 runs above average, key by his 16-for-18 success in stealing bases. He’s also taken an extra base 59 percent of the time while making three outs on the bases.

Jayson Werth, though, has had the most remarkable season on the base paths. He ranks 15th at 4.0 runs above average. Werth has gone first to third on a single 17 times, more than any player in the majors, out of 32 chances. In five chances to score from first on a double, he’s done it three times. He’s scored from second on a single nine times in 13 opportunities.

Overall, Werth has taken an extra 20 bases on a hit — 58 percent of the time, well above the league average of 41 percent. He’s also stolen five bases. All of that aggression has come at precisely zero cost to the Nationals: Werth has not made a single out on the bases all season.

“He’s a fantastic base runner,” Williams said. “He takes pride in it. He leads the charge, too. It’s important to him. He feels better about doing something like [going first to third] than he would stealing second. Because that’s things he can do. He can help us win in that regard.”

Base running has also been one more thing Anthony Rendon does exceptionally well on a baseball field. He ranks 17th in FanGraphs’s measure at 3.8 runs above average. Rendon has advanced an extra base 62 percent of his chances, an even higher clip than Werth, though he has made two outs on the bases. He also has nine steals in 10 attempts, including his swipe of second in the first inning Monday night.

The Nationals will try again Tuesday to exploit any advantage they can find, searching for the smallest detail to help gain another 90 feet.

“They established it,” Williams said. “ ‘This is how we want to play, Matt.’ Great, let’s do it. I’m with you. Don’t vary from it. Play that way. They’ve taken the bull by the horns and done it, and they’ll continue to do it.”

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NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Pawtucket 4, Syracuse 3: Sandy Leon went 1 for 4 with a double. Tyler Moore went 1 for 1 with a double. Emmanuel Burriss went 2 for 5. Aaron Laffey allowed two earned runs in six innings on eight hits and one walk, striking out one. Former Nat Corey Brown hit a game-winning homer for the Red Sox.

Harrisburg 4, Bowie 3: Drew Vettleson went 1 for 4 with a home run. Rick Hague went 2 for 5. Bryan Harper, Bryce’s brother, pitched a scoreless innings for the save.

Potomac 5, Salem 2: Tony Renda went 2 for 5. Oscar Tejada went 4 for 5 with three doubles. Pedro Encarnacion allowed two runs in four innings on four hits and one walk, striking out four. Austin Voth was named the Carolina League pitcher of the week for the second straight week. In five starts since Potomac debut June 24, Voth has a 0.27 ERA in 33 innings, having allowed 10 hits, walked five and struck out 36.

Hagersotwn 3, Delmarva 1: Rafael Bautista went 1 for 3 with a walk and stole his 53rd base. Wilmer Difo went 1 for 3 with a double and a walk. Hector Silvestre allowed one run in six innings on nine hits and two walks, striking out five. 

Lowell 10, Auburn 2: Dale Carey went 1 for 3 with a double.

Adam Kilgore covers the Nationals for The Washington Post.
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