Monday Breakdown: Is the Nats' Schedule Too Easy?
The Nats have just finished taking two of three from the Giants and four of seven on the season. They played the games so close together that it felt like a seven game series and we can only hope that if the Nats and the Giants meet in October it has the same outcome. The Nats will now face Cleveland for two games but after that there isn't much meat left on the schedule. The Nationals have 13 games left against the Braves and seven against the Phillies. That is a lot of games against some bad teams.
This was the criticism of the Nats hot start. That they didn't earn it because they were beating up on the Marlins and Braves. Turns out the Marlins were actually good and the Nats only played the Braves six times at the start of the season. The big question is can the Nats stay sharp while facing a bunch of patsies down the stretch.
I've always been a believer that in sports you train above what you're trying to do. If a fighter is preparing for a 15 round fight then he should train for 18. It's important to be sharp in those last few rounds. Baseball is different though. Even if the Nats were facing the Cubs or Giants a bunch in September they might only catch the back end of their rotations with their front and Bochy might be resting certain relievers on those days or be giving starters days off. In the playoffs it's going to be your top guy against their's and no one is going to be getting a day off.
While the Cubs and Giants at their worst are still better than the Braves at their best there is no guarantee that the Nats would be tested against those better foes. The Braves in September are also going to be a better Braves team than they have been at any point this season. Expect some of their high ranking prospects to actually be getting playing time and that could test the Nats more than a Cubs team that has everything locked up and it's not like the Nats aren't going to rest more players when they lock things up.
The idea that fighting until the end is beneficial is a myth. The Nats hitters are still going to face pitchers that are trying to get them out and the Nats pitchers are still going to be facing hitters that want to get hits. And, let's face it - there isn't a bigger test for a Nats pitcher than Freddie Freeman, and even if the Nats go 13-0 against the Braves they can still make it work by trying to score 10 runs a night or shut them out every night. If beating the Braves by itself isn't enough of a test the Nats will just have to make it one.
When it comes to the Washington Nationals’ ease of schedule through August and September, it shouldn't raise the question of whether or not the Nats will have earned their October bid. Spoiler alert: they have already earned it by shutting down the rest of the NL East, regardless of how bad some of the competition has been. And, it's a safe bet that the Nats will likely close out the season miles above .500, despite facing a handful of non-division opponents.
While it may be tempting to do, critics really can’t point to this team and claim they have proven little simply because they have faced sub-par opponents. For one, the Nats are fully capable of stumbling on challenges of their own: Bryce Harper’s shortcomings and the question marks around his recent neck stiffness, Ryan Zimmerman’s injury woes, the final admission that Jonathan Papelbon is in no way a reliable closer… The Nats might not be playing against the best-of-the-best, but that doesn’t mean their steady grasp of first place has been effortless. Additionally, the Nats have hard to work to hold a winning record against all four opponents in the NL East – including the Marlins who are just one game away from tying Washington with seven head-to-head wins.
The worrisome aspect of an easy close to the season is that the Nats have new pieces in place that will not have been tested in high-pressure situations in months (if at all this season). Sure, Mark Melancon probably feels the pressure of proving himself in a Washington uniform; but, you simply can’t compare a save situation with a seven-game lead over second place, to a save situation in the postseason (especially when your team has had the poorest of poor luck in playoff save situations). Add to that, while Harper has beaten himself up about the skid plenty of times, the Nats simply haven’t missed his offensive firepower as much as they will come October... nor, did the Nats feel any sense of obligation to pick up another bench piece at the trade deadline.
Between now and the postseason, the Nats will face only three teams that boast a higher runs per game average – the Baltimore Orioles, the Cleveland Indians and the Colorado Rockies. That means that, of 51 remaining games, only 12 will be against opponents who average more runs – and, seven of those games will be played at Nationals Park.
There are no guaranteed outcomes in baseball. We’ve all seen plenty of instances in which great teams lose games against seemingly lousy opponents, and there is no reason to expect that the Nats won’t do the same. Anyway, It’s not that teams need to experience adversity in order to develop the grit and hunger needed to be successful in October; but, the Nats could easily pass through the next two months without ever feeling a conscious need to give 100%. Yes, you would hope this wouldn't be the case for professional athletes, but let's just wait before we guess the number of cases in which a player is chastised for failing to hustle to first in the coming weeks. And, in a 162-game season, who could really argue when Dusty Baker & co. opt, instead, to play their younger guys more and more until we inch closer to October?
At the end of the day, you have to hope that the Nats will approach each game with a must-win attitude even if they know they have a great deal of wiggle room. The question is - will they play differently knowing that they still have a seven-game safety net in place?