Nats Shine Brightly on Big Stage
Before the series against the Boston Red Sox began the national media all had it labeled as one of if not the series to watch in this first weekend of interleague play. It would be a true test for the Washington Nationals as the NL East and the AL East would begin a battle for the top division in the sport. The Washington/Boston series also lined up in a way where the Nationals could truly shine. Aside from Bryce Harper playing in front of one of the largest and most knowledgeable media groups it would also be his first time playing in one of the landmarks of the game.
Bryce Harper did not disappoint and it is easy to get lost in his break neck dash around the bases that secured the sweep or his 420 foot homerun that was crushed to the deepest part of the park. Bryce Harper is a 19 year old kid playing like one of the best in the game right now. Over the last 28 days Harper is hitting .311/.392/.622. Those aren't just rookie of the year numbers those are MVP numbers. Small sample that it is the domination of the highest league in the land by a 19 year old is impressive, but what is more impressive than the raw numbers is his play style.
Ty Cobb described his own play style as such, "My system was all offense. I believed in putting up a mental hazard for the other fellow. If we were five or six runs ahead, I'd try some wild play, such as going from first to home on a single. This helped to make the other side hurry the play in a close game later on. I worked out all the angles I could think of, to keep them guessing and hurrying." Does that not aptly describe Harper as he raced around the bases to score from first on Roger Bernadina's double? And that isn't the only example of such style of play from Harper. He has stolen home, scored from second on an infield single, and taken numerous bases that weren't given to him. At the plate Harper takes what the game gives him, but on the bases baseball is a war and Harper will fight for every inch and force every issue in order to take what is not given.
It is easy to get lost in the play of Harper, but there were many other Nats that shined bright in the Red Sox series. Ian Desmond hit the go ahead RBI single to give the Nats a lead they wouldn't look back from Friday night, and let's not forget Stephen Strasburg striking out 13 that night with the last two coming with Strasburg over 100 pitches and the bases loaded in the sixth inning. How about Gio Gonzalez the very next day pitching 6 1/3 innings striking out 5 walking 2 and giving up only 2 runs, and those 2 runs scored because the reliever allowed them too. Also in that second game of the series it was Ian Desmond who once again had the game deciding hit.
Desmond numbers won't garner much praise as he is not much more than an average short stop, but this season for the Nats he has stepped up when it matters and delivered game winning hit after game winning hit. It is almost like Desmond can only hit when the game is on the line. WPA or Win Percentage Added is a stat that can help to measure how a player performs in tough situations, and Ian Desmond leads the Nationals by a wide margin with a WPA of 2.39 compared to second place LaRoche who has a WPA of 1.60. Ian Desmond isn't just one of the best high leverage hitters on the Nats his WPA ranks him 8th in the majors in that category. That certainly isn't what most would expect from a player with a .291 OBP.
In the final game of the series Bryce Harper got the day off but made his impact as soon as he entered the game with the aforementioned dash around the bases, but once again a member of the Nats vaunted rotations came up big. Jordan Zimmermann gave up one additional run than his two rotation mates who both gave up two, but he was able to pitch through the seventh inning while striking out 7 and walking only 2.
The best of the Nats rotation was on display this weekend in Boston and they did not disappoint. Strasburg and Gio showed their shutdown ability while Jordan Zimmermann was fearless in his approach and went right after the Red Sox powerful line-up. Strasburg and Gio when they are on are unhittable and will trick and entice batters to swing at pitches out of the zone. Jordan Zimmermann has no time for such games and will pound the zone without mercy and dare batters to try and hit his pitches.
All of the starting pitching in this series was great, but the bullpen got the job done as well. Tyler Clippard who is filling in for his good buddy Drew Storen in the closers role got a save in all three games of the series. None may have been more impressive than the last game in the series though. The Nationals had just taken the lead in the top of the inning and needed Clippard to get a save for the third game in a row. Clippard did just that as he allowed only one base runner while striking out the side. His K of Pedroia was especially impressive. Bobby Valentine came out to argue balls and strikes with the home plate umpire and stayed for a fair amount of time. Clippard could have gotten cold during this wait, but instead as soon as Bobby V left the field he finished Pedroia off with a low change-up that had Pedroia all kinds of locked up.
It is still only June, but the Nats are 12 games over .500 and passed a big test this weekend, but this season is full of big test. Let's not forget the Red Sox have struggled in 2012 and are a last place club. The Nats will now go off to Toronto to climb the ladder of the AL East and take on the Blue Jays. It is yet another big test as the Nats will then head home to play the two teams battling for first in the AL East in the Yankees and the Rays before heading back out on the road to take on the surprising Baltimore Orioles who beat the Nationals at home earlier this season. This is by far the toughest stretch on the Nationals schedule, but after the performance they put on in Boston it is off to a good start, and even if this season ends in disappointment the future has never been brighter for baseball in DC.