Never underestimate how far ahead Johnson is. Why do the Nats pull off so many successful double steals? Because Johnson pairs off his four best thieves — Werth and Harper at the top of the lineup and Desmond and Espinosa back-to-back at No. 6 and 7 — so they can steal in tandem. Johnson also loves the right-left-right-left-right-right-switch-hitter sequence of his order. It makes late-inning bullpen moves against the Nats less effective.
The current lineup produces because, when healthy, it makes up in relentlessness what it lacks in star power.The Nats have no great hitters. None is in the top 10 in MLB in any important offensive stat. Yet consider: The first five Nats hitters have all had seasons with at least 31 homers, except Harper, who has 21 already at age 19. Behind those imposing men are Desmond, with 25 homers this year despite missing a month, and Espinosa, who has had 55 extra-base hits in ’11 and again in ’12.
None is terrifying, but each is a concern. The Mets’ R.A. Dickey, a Cy Young hopeful, said the Nats, more than any team he faced, made every pitch stressful.
It’s tempting to think the Nats have just been hot for three months, that this tear is a bit indicative of their genuine ability. Maybe. But no Nat, except Desmond, is having a career year. Morse and Werth have had much better seasons.
If the Nats have a secret sauce, it’s their Goon Squad, led by Chad Tracy, Roger Bernadina, Steve Lombardozzi and Tyler Moore. The Nationals’ reserves are having one of the best bench seasons in 40 years. That’s a Johnson pet project, too.
When the postseason starts, we’ll be told the Nats will go as far as their pitching will take them — with that big haunting Strasburg asterisk. That will sound right at first glance. And since the All-Star Game, the Nats do have the game’s third-best team ERA.
But from June 27 through Sept. 27, the Nats have been the No. 1 scoring offense in baseball. And they lead by a clear margin, despite playing in a league without a designated hitter.
If the Nats really do have a lineup that has become, even roughly speaking, as good as Josh Hamilton’s Texas Rangers or the 233-homer New York Yankees, then we might once again be in danger of underestimating the Nats. They keep changing who they are. Every time we catch up, they look a little better.
For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/boswell.