The Washington Nationals have not played excellent baseball at any point this season, not even briefly, but they are finally getting closer. Their current 22-9 run, built on hot hitting, good health and a soft patch in the schedule, has disguised lingering flaws, especially mediocre pitching since July.
But what if the Nats, who come home Friday for a 10-game homestand that may truly be a Last Stand, actually clicked and did play well? What if almost five weeks of .700 ball was a preamble to a real streak? Are they capable of it? Where would it get them? And, even if they failed to make the playoffs, what would such a finish mean for the future?
Conversely, if they wake up in just a few days and conclude, “We really are dead. We’re not even going to make it close,” how will they respond? And how will the Nats evaluate such a season just one year after 98 wins?
Playoff teams make playoff runs. It doesn’t matter when they arrive. When you’re six games out of the final playoff spot, five in the loss column, with 17 to play, you are in deep trouble. But, if you’re good enough to play like a true postseason team, it’s not too late. Because when bound-for-October teams get hot, they win almost every game for a few weeks and scare those they chase.
Are the Nats such a club? Regardless of whether the Reds and Pirates finish solidly and close them out, or collapse and give them a chance, the Nats still have to answer the one question that is under their control: Can they play down the stretch as if they believe, and say, that they should have played all year? Or are they going to have to face the coldest words in sports: You are your record. In which case they’d be remembered as a cheap-talk team: 76-69 and lucky at that with 582 runs scored, 579 allowed.
The Nats stun you with extremes. For 98 games they had the second-worst offense in MLB. They fired the hitting coach. Scapegoating, I said. If so, farm animals everywhere better start running. Since Rick Schu arrived and the Nats trimmed their workaholic pre-game hitting habits, some self-inflicted hair-shirt drills, the Nats’ offense has led the National League in . . . everything.
First in runs (220), homers (59), slugging average and on-base percentage. All the things the Nats supposedly couldn’t do, they suddenly did by the bushel. Health helped. But the transformation has been shocking. Jayson Werth has been the best all-around hitter and league leader in homers since the all-star break. Ryan Zimmerman has been third in the NL in homers. Wilson Ramos has 29 RBI in 41 games. Denard Span, Tyler Moore and Ian Desmond have all raked, and the bench now produces.
Since Schu arrived, the Nats have only outscored the Dodgers and Cardinals by a tiny margin. But when your rotation begins with Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann and your bullpen ends with Rafael Soriano (41 saves) and Tyler Clippard, you should be better than the 28-19 record the Nats have posted since their bat-rack spontaneously combusted.
But the Nats have not yet played crisp, smart consistent baseball. They run the bases like they are blindfolded at a toddler’s birthday party. Granted, the Nats are no longer doubled off base on every infield lineout and pitchers sometimes remember to cover first base. Drew Storen held a runner close enough to be thrown out stealing, a franchise watershed. But the Nats are 27th in fielding; only Ryan Zimmerman has a doctor’s excuse.
Flaws and all, the Nats have enough functioning parts to make that late run — though barely. Rookie Tanner Roark (5-0, 0.94 ERA), even when he comes out of the clouds, has shown the command and stuff that succeeds. The bullpen isn’t balanced, but Craig Stammen, plus Store-Clip-and-Save may be enough. That leaves Dan Haren. For a month, Dr. Jeykll had a 1.32 ERA, a 4-0 record and an extra-inning save. The rest of the year, the Nats have gone 5-17 in Mr. Hyde’s starts. Haren’s last three starts may determine whether Mike Rizzo has insomnia for years. If you add an aging pitcher after an injured off year and have little insurance behind him, you better be right.
Regardless of these final games, the Nats have far more positive answers for their future than seemed likely on Aug. 7, when the Braves swept them in Nationals Park and ended any NL East discussion.
After a 22-game hitting streak, Span has duplicated his career numbers and justified his trade. And the Nats control him, and his smooth glove in center, for two more years. Soriano has fixed his mechanics, gotten more tilt on his slider, saved 40 games and . . . still scares you to death. But what if the Nats hadn’t added him? The ’pen might’ve been Clip and Pray.
Core pieces developed. Strasburg stayed healthy with a sub-3.00 ERA. Anthony Rendon got 100 big league games far ahead of schedule and will probably start in the infield for years. Shortstop Desmond backed up his breakout 2012 with a superb ’13. He’s on the verge of back-to-back 20-20-20 seasons: 20 homers, 20 steals, fewer than 20 errors. Only Alex Rodriguez, Jimmy Rollins and Hanley Ramirez have done it; nobody has gone 20-20-20 three in a row.
Bryce Harper, who has been hobbled since May, had a remarkable .882 on-base percentage plus slugging average through Tuesday, which would be in the top 10 in the NL if he had enough appearances to qualify. At 20, that means he’s already a mid-order slugger when healthy. But he has problems vs. lefties, which may keep him from being a .300 hitter, raw skills in left field, craziness on the bases and too much attention-catching flash for a player who’s durability and production are to be determined.
As this season finishes, the Nats are correct to say, as they seem to reiterate every night, that “we haven’t played our best baseball yet,” and that if they ever do, something special could happen.
But that doesn’t go far enough. Excellence is its own end. The Nats are a team in the process of creating an identity that goes beyond one thrilling or one disappointing year. Teams that are perennial playoff contenders make playoff runs — whether they end up reaching October that season or not. If that’s who the Nats really are, they have time to show it.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.