The Washington Nationals (48-33) own the best record in the National League as the All-Star Break steadily approaches. Baseball’s marathon has reached the midpoint, and the Nationals have proven themselves to be for real after sweeping the San Francisco Giants (46-38) out of first place. No, the youthful Nationals are not a fluke, but still, are they actually good enough to win the highly touted NL East? A division typically dominated by the Philadelphia Phillies (37-48) and the Atlanta Braves (44-39) has been overtaken by the most compelling team in baseball’s first half.
The Nationals are not just that old, wretched team from Montreal anymore. They aren’t the latest fan-base deprived baseball franchise to build a new ballpark to resurrect fans’ interest. And they aren’t just that one OK team with that one superstar pitcher, and that 19-year old phenomenon with a trademark. The Nationals are instead demanding respect as we look toward the 2nd half:
Stephen Strasburg (9-4, 2.82 ERA) is tied with perennial superstar, Justin Verlander (9-5, 2.58 ERA) for the major league lead with 128 strikeouts. In fact, Strasburg accomplished the feat in just 99 innings of work, as compared to the 132.2 innings pitched by Verlander. Strasburg rightfully headlines a band of 3 Nationals who will represent their club at the 83rd MLB All-Star Game on July 10. Gio Gonzalez (11-3, 3.01, 112 Ks) was acquired in a prospect-loaded trade with the Athletics last summer, and is about to make his second consecutive appearance in the mid-summer classic. This time… in the National League. Then there’s swift-slugging infielder, Ian Desmond (.279 AVG., 15 HRs, 48 RBIs), who is just second on the team in run production, exemplifying how solid the Nationals’ lineup has been. Adam LaRoche leads the team with 53 RBIs, and isn’t an after thought. But, neither is Bryce Harper (.283 AVG., 8 HRs, 25 RBIs), or Michael Morse (.283 AVG., 4 HRs, 16 RBIs), who has produced mightily in 31 games after missing the first two months of the season on the disabled list.
Last season, the Nationals’ offense was mediocre at best, scoring a stagnant 3.85 runs per game. 2012 is a different story though. Washington is scoring 4.21 runs per game through its first 81 games, on the heels of 87 home runs, which is good enough to support the Nationals’ young, talented, starting rotation. Pitching is the Nationals’ strongest accolade. The team owns baseball’s lowest team earned-run average at 3.21. In fact, the Nationals own 3 of the top slots in the 4 major pitching categories: Washington leads baseball with a 1.20 WHIP and a .231 batting average against. The Nationals are also 4th in the MLB in quality starts with 51.
Add all that up and and the numbers spit out a first place team. No, they don’t have the star-power of the prototypical Yankees. They don’t boast about All-Star selections, or mid-season achievements. But, the Nationals have defined a new standard for a franchise of which has forever been an afterthought in a city that is infamous for bad baseball: winning.
In the 8 seasons since the franchise crossed the border from Canada to the capital of the free world, the Nationals have never finished better than 81-81. That was 2005; the season the franchise renamed itself and reopened RFK Stadium before eventually dawning the entry of a new era at Nationals Park in 2008. The Nationals lost 102 games in the ballpark’s inaugural season, and followed it up by hanging 103 L’s on the board in ’09.
It’s undoubtedly been a delayed new era for a franchise desperate for relevancy. Stock pile a team with enough top notch, first round draft picks, however, and watch the transformation eclipse “relevancy,” and approach the concept of “contending.”
The Nationals are “contenders” for the first time since 1996 when the franchise was known as the “Expos,” and the team racked up 88 wins, finishing just 2 games behind the LA Dodgers for the NL Wild Card. This season, the Nationals have claimed a choke-hold on 1st in the NL East for the first time since 1994. The Expos steam-rolled through National League competition in ’94, winning 74 of their 114 games… before MLB Commissioner, Bud Selig famously cancelled the World Series in what has been widely considered the worst work stoppage in the history of sports.
It has never been “meant to be” for the former Expositions, who have won just one playoff series (1981) in their 44 season existence. 2012 has given birth to a certain brand of “natitude,” however, that has casual fans hungry for baseball in D.C. for the first time in the modern era. But, can it last into the brutal pennant chase of September and October?
Just 35 of the Nationals 79 games in the 2nd half are against teams with winning records (Braves, Cardinals, Dodgers, Giants, Mets), giving new-found “natitude“ a serious chance to thrive into the fall. It’s never been said before, but this league belongs to the Nationals, and it’s officially theirs to lose.