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Atrocious bullpen and all, the Nats are running away with the NL East

Max Scherzer and the Nationals are rolling. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

The Nationals enter Thursday’s series finale against the Pirates leading the National League East by eight games, which is tied for the largest division lead in baseball with the Houston Astros. Before Wednesday’s 6-1 loss in Pittsburgh, Washington’s lead was a season-high nine games, an unusually large cushion for this point in the year.

“Nine-game leads, they’re few and far between,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo told the Sports Junkies on Thursday on 106.7 The Fan. “I don’t know if in our three division-winning seasons if we had a nine-game lead the whole season. I know one year we won the league by nine, but that was toward the end. It’s unique, it’s remarkable, a lot of things have to fall right. We’re playing extremely well. The Mets are not playing well. They’ve been injured and they’ve struggled. The Marlins, who we respect very well — they have a great, young lineup — have struggled. The Braves have played extremely well and they’re a young, rebuilding team, and so are the Phillies. The Phillies play us as tough as anybody and we have played the Phillies, I think, 12 times out of the first 30 games. With some scheduling quirks, we’ve played within our division a lot and we got hot at the start of the season, and head to head we’ve been pretty good against these teams.”

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Rizzo’s Nationals history is a little off. Washington led the division by at least nine games at several points last season before finishing the year eight games ahead of the Mets, and in 2014, the Nationals won the East by 17 games. Rizzo is right about the Nationals’ dominance of division foes this year, however, as Washington is 16-8 against the National League East. He’s also correct that an eight-game lead on May 18 is remarkable. The Nationals’ lead is the largest by the National League East leader on May 18 since the Braves led the Mets by 8.5 games on the same date in 1998. (Atlanta had played five more games by May 18 that season than Washington has this year.)

In each of the previous six seasons, the National League East division leader has had a half-game lead over the second-place team on May 18. Since baseball returned to Washington in 2005, the largest National League East lead on May 18 was five games by the Phillies in 2010, and that was the only year the lead was more than two games.

Given the sorry state of the Mets, who were supposed to be Washington’s biggest challenge for the division crown, and that the Braves will be without Freddie Freeman for at least eight weeks, the Nationals’ path to a second consecutive division title appears clear. A lot can happen between now and October. In four of the past six seasons, the team with the largest division lead in baseball on May 18 didn’t ultimately win its division. Three of those teams (2013 Rangers, 2012 Dodgers, 2011 Indians) didn’t even win the wild card.

Largest Division Lead in MLB on May 18 over the previous six seasons
2016: Cubs (6.5) | Final standings: Cubs won the division by 17.5 games.
2015: Astros (6.5) | Rangers won the division by 2.0 games.
2014: Tigers (6.5) | Tigers won the division by 1.0 games.
2013: Rangers (6.5) | A’s won the division by 5.5 games.
2012: Dodgers (6.0) | Giants won the division by 8.0 games.
2011: Indians (5.0) | Tigers won the division by 15.0 games.

Perhaps that’s why Rizzo isn’t focusing too much on the competition when it comes to evaluating his own team at this point in the season.

“We look internally at ourselves and how we’re playing, more so than how the National League is playing or how our division is playing,” Rizzo said. “We play each other so many times, not only in the regular season, but in spring training so many times, there’s no fooling anybody, there’s no masking anything. These guys know how to dissect the lineup against us, and we know how to attack their hitters. It’s usually the team that plays the best, that’s healthiest and that’s peaking at the right time, gets out of the gate fast. With all this intraleague play, we have an opportunity to beat each other up early on in the season and we’ve played well so far.”

What’s most remarkable about the Nationals’ eight-game lead after 39 games is they’ve done it with one of the worst bullpens in baseball.

“I see some gradual improvement in the bullpen,” Rizzo said Thursday. “I see guys performing better. I like what I’ve seen recently out of [Blake] Treinen. I like where [Enny] Romero’s at. [Koda] Glover finished out a game for us in the ninth inning, he looked very good. I like [Shawn] Kelley getting back on the horse for us and performing better, so I see things going in the right direction.”

If that happens, the Nationals’ division lead should only continue to grow.