Nationals becoming contenderBy Matt Verderame
For years, the Washington Nationals have been one of if not the most talented teams in Major League Baseball. However, the team is yet to reach the NL Championship Series in its history, falling short of the postseason last year despite prognosticators picking Washington almost universally to win the World Series.
The Nationals made some major moves in the offseason, firing manager Matt Williams and replacing the former All-Star third baseman with the grizzled Dusty Baker. Baker, who reached the World Series in 2002 with the San Francisco Giants, was most-recently with the Cincinnati Reds where he turned a perennial loser into a postseason stalwart.
Now, Baker has the Nationals finally living up to their considerable potential. At the All-Star break, Washington is leading the NL East by six games over both the Miami Marlins and New York Mets. For Baker’s bunch, it has been nothing short of a dream to this point in the campaign, with Washington sitting at 54-36 through the first 90 games. The Nationals are only trailing the Chicago Cubs by percentage points for the second seed in the NL while the Giants are three games clear of the top seed.
To this juncture, the Nationals are being led by the starting rotation and Bryce Harper. Harper has become the best player in the sport, coming off an Most Valuable Player season when he hit .330 with 42 home runs and 99 RBI. This season, Harper is rolling with a .399 on-base percentage (albeit a .256 average) and 19 homers along with 52 RBI. While the numbers are a touch down, Harper is right in the thick of the MVP race once more.
Harper has had help in the lineup with newcomer Daniel Murphy, who is enjoying a career year. The former Mets second baseman is hitting a team-best .348 with 17 homers and 66 RBI, while catcher Wilson Ramos is at a .330 clip with 13 dingers and 48 runs batted in.
In the rotation, it begins with Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer. Strasberg is in the race for the NL Cy Young award, sporting a 12-0 record with a dozen quality starts in 16 outings. Strasburg also leads the Nationals’ starters with a 2.62 ERA, while Scherzer has posted a 3.03 ERA. The former Tigers star has 10 wins as well to go with 164 strikeouts and a 0.96 WHIP. Factor in the fine years of Tanner Roark and Joe Ross, and the Nationals have a nice, deep staff to go into October with.
Washington has been long on potential and short on results for years now. This is the chance for the Nationals to finally get over the proverbial hump and win a championship for the first time in franchise history. Anything less will be considered a failure, and rightfully so.