We’ll know soon if the chase for the National League East chase will include two or three teams. The Atlanta Braves trail Philadelphia by a game. Washington is 4½ games behind the local nine.
The Nationals’ next 10 games include four against the Braves – there’s a doubleheader today – and then three against the Cubs and four against the Cardinals. Toward the end of August, the Nats have six games against Philly. If Washington’s long-anticipated surge is coming, it has to come soon.
Baseball Prospectus assigns Washington, the preseason overwhelming favorite to win a fifth division title in seven years, a 10.4 percent chance of taking the East and a 22.1 percent shot at a wild card. Still, the Nationals have won five of six to rise to 57-54; it’s the first time they’ve been three games above .500 since June 30. Most of the many injured Nats have returned, although not Stephen Strasburg, who always has some physical issue. (This time it’s his neck.)
We forget now, but Washington nosed ahead in the East in late May and held first place as late as June 10. Then its rotation fell to pieces. Tanner Roark had an ERA of 6.08 in June and 5.23 in July. Gio Gonzalez’s ERA was 8.44 in June. Strasburg has started one game since June 8, that against the Braves on July 20. He lasted 4-2/3 innings and headed back to the DL.
Bryce Harper has finally begun to hit a bit -- his average has ticked up to .234 – but his Baseball-Reference WAR is 1.0, 12th-best on his team. Adam Eaton and Daniel Murphy got late starts due to injury. Matt Wieters has done next to nothing. Going by WAR, the Nats’ two best position players have been Trea Turner, who’s hitting .267, and Juan Soto, who’s 19 and who began the season in Single-A.
The temptation is great to say that, if a team has played 111 games and hasn’t gotten going, it’s not apt to go anywhere. But we can’t dismiss the Nationals because they are – stop me if you’ve heard this – hugely talented. And with Harper due – stop me here, too – to hit free agency, this could be their last good chance for a while.
But anyone thinking warm thoughts about a Washington charge should also note that the Nats have, over time, been a bit dysfunctional – from the overreliance on Scott Boras clients to Jonathan Papelbon’s dugout chokehold on Harper to the decision to dump manager Dusty Baker after consecutive division titles for rookie manager Dave Martinez, who hasn’t tripped the light fantastic. Last week the Nats released reliever Shawn Kelley for what was deemed a fit of pique at having to work the ninth inning of a game his team led 25-1. (He said he threw his glove after yielding a home run because he was mad at the umpires.)
With the #Natitude crew, it’s always something. Washington really should have won a World Series by now, but it’s yet to prevail in a single playoff series. Unless matters change, it won’t have any October flops to live down this time. But matters still could change. It’s now-or-never for the Nats.