Nationals Retrospective: Week 10
This past week was anotheremotionally rollicking roller coaster, as the Nats eked out a 3-2 record despite facing sub-par competition from the likes of the New York Mets and the struggling Minnesota Twins. It was a weird week scheduling wise as rainouts on both Wednesday and Thursday forced the Nats to schedule a Sunday doubleheader, which ended up benefitting an injury ravaged Nationals roster. With about 1/3rd of the season completed, the Nats were able to secure the extra win to give them a .500 record (31-31) as they gear up for a big road trip against the Colorado Rockies, Cleveland Indians, and Philadelphia Phillies. While the record might not be the most positive indicator, this was a critical week for a Nationals team that is looking for any and all momentum possible to make a run at the Atlanta Braves for the division crown. Let’s take a closer look at why the Nats might look back on this week as the most critical for the future success of the ballclub this season.
LATE INNING MAGIC
Tuesday’s 3-2 win against the Mets was the first major comeback win for the Nationals this season, as they faced poor situational hitting and sloppy defense to overcome a 2-1 deficit in the ninth thanks to a walk-off sacrifice fly by starting 2B Steve Lombardozzi. Coming into that game, the Nats had scored two runs total in the ninth inning, and were 0-21 when trailing after six innings. They were also the last major league team to win via walk-off this season, which speaks to their late game woes. Given Zimmermann’s strong start (more on that in a minute), it would have been beyond demoralizing for a team with such high expectations to drop that kind of game. That late game comeback magic carried over into the second game of Sunday’s double header, where the Nats – down 4-1 as a result of Nathan Karns’ sub-par effort – clawed their way back with individual runs in the 3rd, 5th, 6th and 7th to squeak out a 5-4 win and sweep the doubleheader. A clutch triple by Denard Span in the 6th and doubles by Adam LaRoche and Ian Desmond in the 7th paved the way. Not every baseball game is going to be won by staking a lead early in the ballgame, so for the Nats to get two comeback wins in the same week is a positive sign that this team has the fight to make this division race competitive.
JORDAN ZIMMERMANN’S DOMINANCE
While Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez were regarded as the feared Nationals 1-2 punch heading into this season, the Nationals would be in serious trouble if Jordan Zimmermann was not anchoring this staff. The number 3 pitcher continued his dominant, dare I say Cy Young-caliber season, with a pair of starts that cemented his status as one of baseball’s top pitchers. On Tuesday, Zimmermann went 8 innings, giving up 4 hits, 2 runs (0 ER), 1 walk and 4 K’s. Those 2 runs came on a pair of uncharacteristically sloppy defensive plays by Adam LaRoche – there was hardly anything Zimmermann could have done differently to alter the outcome. On Sunday, in the first leg of a double header, it was imperative Zimmermann go deep into the game to rest a bullpen that was heavily taxed the night before, and would in all likelihood need to be used given the recent performances of nighttime starter Nathan Karns. And boy did Zim deliver. Zimmermann stymied the Twins to the tune of 7 innings, 2 hits, 0 runs, 2 walks, and 8 k’s in an absolutely dominant performance. With 94 2/3 IP for the season, Zimmermann now has an ERA at 2.00 exactly, and an absolutely absurd WHIP of .887. He has now gone seven innings or more in ten of his thirteen starts this year, and in those ten starts, he has not given up more than 3 ER’s. He has, without question, been the MVP for this depleted Nationals team in the first third of the season.
WELCOME TO THE SHOW, ANTHONY RENDON
The Anthony Rendon experiment at second base finally began in earnest on Wednesday, as the recently-turned 23 year old showed how much potential he has, and how far he has to go, in order to cement his status as the number one second basemen. Rendon’s potential is most evident at the plate; he went 6-16, including a really impressive game in the first leg of the Sunday doubleheader, where he knocked in 3 runs while going 2-3 in the process. While his .293/.383/.390 splits (BA/OPS/SLG) need to be taken with a grain of salt given the small sample size, these kinds of numbers are just what the doctor ordered for a Nats team that is looking for offensive production from just about anyone right now. However, it’s pretty clear that Rendon won’t be winning a gold glove at second anytime soon. On Sunday, he committed an error in each game; the first leg featured a dropped pop up while the second game featured a booted throw to first after a slick dive to pick up a grounder. Neither were calamitous, and I’m willing to let Rendon make those kinds of errors as he’s basically learning the position on the job. But the Nationals have been a horrific defensive team this year, and given Ryan Zimmerman’s throwing struggles at third, the sooner Rendon picks up the fundamentals at second, the better the Nats will be going forward. Regardless, his four games at second have been thoroughly impressive, and the job at second will be his as long as Danny Espinosa doesn't morph into a .400 hitter while he's on the DL; I'll take my chances that Rendon will be here a while.
AROUND THE NL EAST
The Braves went 5-2 this week, sweeping the Pirates at home before running into the Yasiel Puig chainsaw and ultimately settling for a split with the Dodgers in LA. They now have a seven game lead on the Nats, but continue to stay out west for a three game set against the San Diego Padres before returning home for three games against the dangerous San Francisco Giants. Kris Medlen had a very impressive week, pitching a combined 13.2 IP over two games while giving up no runs and striking out 12. Although his record is currently 3-6, if he’s heating up like he did at the end of last year, he could be a real threat to the National’s division aspirations.
A 4-3 week looks good on paper, but when you consider that the Phillies swept a triple AAA team in Miami, at home, it doesn’t look as sound. Losing 3 of 4 at Milwaukee ultimately hurt what could have been a really solid week for a team looking to stay involved in the division race. Domonic Brown continues to do his Carl Yastrzemski impression at the plate; he went 12-26, hitting four homers and scoring eleven runs in the last seven games. I refuse to believe he can continue to produce at this level, but his emergence has definitely been one of the few positives in an otherwise disappointing campaign for the Phillies thus far. The Phillies now sit at 31-33, only one game back of the Nats for 2nd place in the division.
NEW YORK METS
Wednesday’s 10-1 thrashing of the Nats notwithstanding, this was a horrific week for the Mets. Not only did reliever Bobby Pelfrey blow a 2-1 lead to the Nats the night before, but they went ahead and lost Saturday’s 20 inning war of attrition with the Marlins that may have set baseball back about fifty years. Even worse, the Mets did not give Nats fans, and the national media, the opportunity to see Rick Ankiel fill in for a reliever during that game. They instead decided to DFA him after Saturday’s game in order to recall Kirk Nieuwenhuis. I think it’s karmic justice that the Mets were pushed to late innings again on Sunday, only to lose 8-4 in the tenth. The Mets bullpen was the worst in the league last year, and they’ve continued to be terrible this year. I have to believe Ankiel could find a spot in that bullpen if he wanted one. Major kudos to Shawn Marcum for showing that he could thwart triple AAA hitting by pitching 8 innings of one run ball in relief, but no kudos should be given to any of the Mets for the atrocity they put on the field this past weekend.
Major props to the Marlins for sweeping the Mets (albeit with a Friday rainout) with two really gutsy performances. They finished 2-3 on the week, but that 2-1 20 inning game will probably go down as the highlight of their season. It will certainly be Kevin Slowey’s; the starter completely shut down the Mets with seven innings of shutout baseball in relief to gain the win. A huge thank you from all baseball fans should be sent to Adeiny Hechavarria for singling in Placido Polanco in the top half of the 20th – if not for him, that game would probably still be going on right now. At least he put the Mets bloggers out of their misery.