Washington Nationals’ NL wild card run bodes well for team — in 2013 or beyond

The Post Sports Live crew tries to see meaning in the Nationals late season run even though the team is a longshot to make the playoffs. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist September 18, 2013

The most important aspect of the Nationals’ scorching 27-11 streak is the names of the players who have been the team’s stalwarts in this push. They are exactly the players whose excellence, in question until recently, will have the biggest long-term impact on the Nats regardless of these final days. Wilson Ramos has been the RBI leader, Denard Span the top batter, Ryan Zimmerman the home run leader, Tanner Roark the best pitcher on the staff and Drew Storen the best late-inning reliever.

Just six weeks ago there were serious questions about the future of all of these players. And Roark, a low draft pick acquired for Cristian Guzman in 2010, was almost unknown. Now each of them has made the Nats’ future look brighter, even if they don’t pull off a near-miracle race for a playoff spot.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Ramos has shown that the Nats, presumed to be one power bat shy of a load, have found that rare commodity in-house. The burly catcher, known for titanic batting practices for years, has 15 homers and 55 RBI in just 70 games. Do not, repeat, do not simply multiply by two and talk silliness about a 30-homer, 100-RBI catcher. But after catching 23 straight games recently, the longest streak in 2013, Ramos has shown he can be a workhorse when healthy while also maintaining power. Now, can he stay off the DL a full year? We don’t know. But his ability is not in doubt.

Span, a perfect route-runner in center field with his gliding catches and good throws, has justified Mike Rizzo’s offseason trade. His 29-game hitting streak and his .343 average since the Nats bottomed Aug. 7 have raised his numbers to his solid career levels. He’s signed through 2015, too. The conscientious sort, Span fretted all year about proving his worth to his mates, who knew Michael Morse left because he had arrived. Now he’s embraced and a team motor.

Zimmerman’s 13 home runs during this streak have erased all doubts about whether he still has his power. Since the all-star break, only Alfonso Soriano has hit more. That matters enormously because with more than $100 million left on his contract he needs to be worthy of a key batting order spot, whether he plays third base (where he certainly will start in 2014) or eventually moves to first base. Like Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, who has hit .326 with 30 RBI during this streak, has shown he can hit in the vicinity of his paycheck.

Roark may, in some ways, be the most important development, at least potentially. He arrived from the minors Aug. 7 and has pitched 412 / 3 innings — nine more than Stephen Strasburg in that span and only a fraction less than Gio Gonzalez — with an amazing 7-0 record and 1.08 ERA.

Manager Davey Johnson now openly supports him for the ’14 rotation, citing not just his stuff but his command, mound presence and attack-mode style; all of that befits the way he has worn his uniform since Little League — like it’s 1958. Six weeks don’t make a career, but if Roark, 26 and in his prime, does become a rotation piece — just “good” suffices — then it frees huge amounts of payroll room for the next several seasons since the Nats wouldn’t have to spend $13 million a year for their next Edwin Jackson or Dan Haren. That money can go toward extending the deals of Ian Desmond (.327, 25 RBI in the streak) and Jordan Zimmermann, the NL leader in wins.

Finally, the Nats wondered when — or if — they would ever see the Storen of ’11 again. He was sent to the minors for the baseball equivalent of shell shock from his failures since Game 5 last season. After his return Aug. 16, he has been the ’pen workhorse, pitching in 17 games with a 1.76 ERA and a .200 batting average against, just like the old Drew. Is “welcome back” in order?

Include the impeccable recent work of Craig Stammen (0.50 ERA in the streak) and the Nats’ bullpen may be as good as they imagined — as soon as they find two quality left-handers. Recently, Xavier Cedeno has looked like a promising lefty specialist. But this winter, the left side must be strengthened.

Just as bad news always seems to cascade into more repulsive ramifications, good also ripples out and has further benefits. Tyler Moore has the highest batting average on the team during the streak (.365), though in half-time play. This, plus his monster numbers at AAA after being demoted in midseason, means Adam LaRoche’s poor but not awful season is less worrisome. At the least, Moore looks ready to platoon at first base next year.

A remarkable streak requires at least three components. A surprise player hits town and jolts the team. Many core players get hot together. And nobody is awful. Roark fits the bill for No. 1, though emergency starter Ross Ohlendorf (4-1, 3.28), signed in January as a cast-off veteran, has been a prize puddle of perspiration. “I’ve never seen a man sweat so much,” Johnson says. “He goes through three sopping-wet jerseys in five innings.”

As for the second and third necessities, six of the eight everyday regulars have an excellent on-base percentage plus slugging average (OPS) of .838 to .995 in the past 37 games, while LaRoche and Anthony Rendon have hit decently enough and gotten on base a lot. Since the All-Star Game, the Nats lead the NL in every important offensive stat, including runs and, by a wide margin, homers.

What’s gone wrong since Aug. 7? Nothing. Just as it seemed nothing went right before that date. You know your luck is running hot when your erratic closer (Rafael Soriano) gets a pitching tip about his balky slider from his agent (Scott Boras) and immediately reels off nine scoreless games.

For the past month or more, three NL contenders have cooled off — the Pirates (17-21), Cardinals (27-26) and Braves (15-15). Even the Dodgers have had a hiccup, losing nine of 13. Right now, the Nats are playing as well as any team in the National League.

But will they even make the playoffs? Baseball Prospectus makes them 33 to 1. The odds don’t lie. But neither do our memories — of a whole bunch of teams since 2000 that made the last 10 days wonderfully insane.

Will the Nats be one of those? Don’t know, but we’re going to find out real soon. What we do know already is that the stars of this streak have already changed the Nats’ prospects for next season and, in every case, for the better.

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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