The Key to Nationals Sustained Success is in the Heart
There are certain truths about a baseball season that have lost their power by becoming over used clichés. I am certain that everyone reading this knows that baseball is a marathon and not a sprint and that it is always early until it is too late, but do they really understand it. Looking at what the Nats went through to get to this point and all the injuries they have sustained they are lucky to be over .500 and it is astounding that they are tied for first.
The reason that the Nats were able to withstand all of their rotten luck is that their pitching has been very good. The Nats have until now allowed the fewest runs a game in the majors, but that includes there outstanding April in which the pitching staff as a whole led the majors with a WAR of 5.5 for the month. In May that dropped off to 3.1, which tied them with the Rays for the seventh highest WAR in that month.
This is all relative as nothing that the Nationals did in May was bad. It simply wasn't as good as April. This slight drop off in pitching effectiveness came at the same time as a rise in offense. The Nationals had a winning record of 14-8 in April and 15-13 in May, and it should be no mystery as to what a winning record in every month of the season would mean.
The fact that the Nationals are a franchise that is trying to pull itself out of recent losing ways is causing some to look for reasons it can't last. The problem is the Nationals really have no one playing over their heads. The pitchers FIPs match up with their ERAs and the Nationals even have a pitcher in Edwin Jackson who has been extremely unlucky when it comes to team wins and losses in his starts.
There is one reason and one reason alone this all might not last, and that is if the heart of the order never gets going. Before going down with a wrist injury Jayson Werth was rebounding nicely from his disappointing first season with the Nats as he was hitting .276/.372/.439 while batting fifth. Now that he is out the fifth spot in the order has seen a few rotating players, but has now been taken over by the returning Michael Morse who has yet to record his first hit of the season.
That isn't the only bad news as the red hot Adam LaRoche has cooled off and over the last 14 days has hit .154/.239/.333. The news gets even worse looking up one spot in the batting order as Ryan Zimmerman has not yet been Ryan Zimmerman this season, but over the last 14 days he has been an automatic out and a black-hole batting a paltry .171/.190/.244.
None of that is good news, but the good news might be that it can't and won't last. Even if Zimmerman and LaRoche don't quite reach the level of torrid this past 14 day stretch could and likely should be their worst of the season. Having those two bats hitting at their career averages along with Michael Morse returning to form will help the Nationals greatly. It is tough for a team to win with a struggling heart of the order and with Steve Lombardozzi and Bryce Harper now at the top of the order and both getting on base at above .370 clips the Nats need to capitalize.
Getting runners on base at the top of the order is one of the most important things a baseball team can do in order to have a winning offense, but the other is knocking them in. The Nationals haven't been good at that all season with a batting line of .221/.331/.341 with runners in scoring position, but the Nationals also haven't been a good hitting team overall this season as they are hitting .241/.311/.394 overall and .241/.299/.410 with the bases empty.
Having Michael Morse back should start to help that, but at this point getting Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche going will help it much more. It should also help that the Nationals next three series against the Mets, Red Sox, and Blue Jays are all against teams in the bottom half of baseball in runs allowed per game.
The Nationals have had two solid months in April and May, but in April the offense couldn't score and in May the pitching fell off a bit. What will be interesting to see is if the Nationals can have a month when everything is clicking about both the offense and pitching are producing at their top levels. If the Nats can have that type of month then the playoffs shouldn't just be a possibility, but a reality. Offensively though it all starts with the heart of the order, and those guys simply have to be better to give the Nats that kind of stretch.