If the Nats play decently in the next nine tough games against their natural rivals, the Phillies, Orioles and Braves, they will finish two months of a hellish schedule. What’s ahead? Four months of potential bliss against the dregs of the National League East and almost every other lousy club in the majors.
The Phillies’ visit to Nationals Park, which began Friday with Washington’s 5-2 win
, embodies this season shift. Most of the Nats’ remaining games (59 of 114) are against teams in their own NL East, which is tied with the American League West as the worst division in baseball. Ahead of them lie 18 more games this year against the Phils, as well as 16 with the weak Mets, 13 with the rotting Marlins and 12 with the Braves, whom they must find a way to beat anyway.
The Nats’ strongest suit by far is their pitching. The NL East is defined by putrid hitting, with the Braves, Mets, Phils and Marlins ranked 13th, 23rd, 26th, and 30th in runs per game entering Friday. The whole division is hitting .238. No team, much less a whole division, has hit below .233 in 40 years. Before long, the Nats may feel like they go weeks at a time before facing a lineup as good as the Tigers, Reds, Cards and Giants they’ve already confronted.
By June 2, the Nats will have played 57 games, 38 of them against teams that have a winning record since the beginning of 2012. After June 2, they play 75 of their last 105 games against teams with a losing record over the past two seasons. Such a lopsided front-loaded ratio must have happened before, but I’ve never seen it.
In those last 105 games, the Nats play only 17 games against any of the dozen top teams of 2012 and ’13. How can you ask for better luck than 88 of 105 games against mediocre-to-bad foes?
All that opportunity arrives in just 10 days, if the Nats get there intact. A few teams may change “identities” from winner to loser, or vice versa, as the season unfolds. But the trend isn’t going to alter much, unless the Phils, 23-25 after going 81-81 last year, get much better or worse for their 19 meetings with the Nats. Yes, the Phils, who still have Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, are a key. Get used to ’em.
As an almost unfair stretch-run edge, the Nats play 30 of 33 games against losers, starting Aug. 19, including 10 games with the Marlins (13-34), who could be the worst team ever. How can this not have a dramatic effect on the Nats’ season?
What about the Braves’ schedule? Their future is almost as bright as the Nats’, including 16 delicious fish fries with the Marlins. The last 32 games of their season are even more mouth-watering than the Nats’. The big picture is that both the Nats and Braves have a big leg up on everybody else in making the five-team National League playoffs. Starting with Friday’s games, the Giants, Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Reds and Cards have 65, 65, 63, 61 and 60 games with teams that are over .500 since the start of last season. The Nats have 37 and the Braves 39.
In recent years, one important predictor of playoff success has been a slow start but a strong finish. Here are the slow-start records of the past 10 teams to reach the World Series: 24-23, 26-32, 50-47, 36-34, 40-39, 26-24, 38-32, 39-37, 24-22 and 17-16. No contender wants to start a season 24-23, as the Nats have. But it doesn’t necessarily cripple your year.
Here’s what the Nats have really been so far: Lucky. They have been outscored 187-164. That should produce about a 20-27 record, which would put the Nats eight games behind Atlanta, not four. Yet it hasn’t.
Why? The Nats have been resilient, making the most out of the least. They’ve won seven games while barely scoring at all — 16 runs in those seven wins.
One view, and it’s possible, is that the Nats are merely a pretty good team, last year was miraculous and they’re seeking their natural level now.
I doubt that. The Nats have played as sloppily (most errors in MLB), hit as badly (third to last in runs), blown as many late leads and failed to come from behind late (zero times) as you’d expect from a 100-loss team. Only pitching has saved them.
What hasn’t changed since last season is the Nats’ starting pitching, the core of the team’s identity. Their top four starters had a combined 2.66 ERA entering Friday, the best of any starting quartet in the majors. When summer arrives, deep pitching rotations assert themselves. As the weather heats up, will the Nats?
Look at their schedule after they get through the next 10 days. Look at the weak-hitting teams on tap that their pitching may dominate. Look at the mountain of 60 division games, the fairest test of a team that wants to repeat. Look at all the recent pennant winners that ignored mundane spring records.
They all say the same thing, loud and clear: “No excuses.”
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.