The Nats are having a very strange season, to say the least.
Coming into the season, everyone expected the team to breeze to an NL East crown after claiming the division title the past two years. However, first year manager Dave Martinez has struggled in his management role.
The team chemistry issues are too large to ignore, and it’s shown with multiple on-the-field incidents. Young, core players Bryce Harper and Trea Turner have embarrassed the team with their lack of hustle, and some players have anonymously called out the clubhouse culture. Even in the midst of a 25–4 slaughtering of the lowly Mets last week, the team still couldn’t avoid some sort of drama:
After all of the turmoil this season, the Nats sit three games above .500 and six games back of the Phillies for first place with less than two months to go. I see three possible scenarios for the Nats for the rest of the season:
Scenario #1: Nats turn it all around, win the National League pennant for first time in team history
While the Nats haven’t played consistent baseball all year, the talent is all there; that’s the reason why GM Mike Rizzo decided not to sell Harper or any other core players at the trade deadline. If this team is playing at its best, it’ll be hard for anyone to take them down.
First off, their pitching could be lethal in a postseason series. There are few pitchers I’d rather have on the mound come October than Max Scherzer. He currently owns a 2.33 ERA and a ridiculous 12.2 K/9 ratio, which would both be career-highs. However, a healthy Stephen Strasburg paired with Scherzer could be what finally puts this team over the edge. While Stras has been fighting shoulder inflammation all year long, he put the entire baseball world on notice last year in the NLDS. Over 14 innings, he gave up zero earned runs, six hits, and fanned 22 batters. He single handedly shut down a potent Cubs lineup, and made them look absolutely silly while doing it.
If Stras and Scherzer are at the top of their game come playoff time, it will take pressure off of the rest of the bullpen and starting rotation, and I like how they would line up in a five or seven game series. Plus, out of the bullpen, Sean Doolittle and Kelvin Herrera can close out games by blowing mid-90s fastballs by guys.
Offensively, if the Nats get hot at the right time, they’ll definitely be able to keep up with any team in baseball. Daniel Murphy’s been swinging the bat a lot better (he’s gotten a hit in 13 out of last 17 games), and Bryce Harper has raised his batting average from .215 at the All-Star break to .234. As a result, the Nats have win nine out of their past 13 games, and are making a strong playoff push. When those two players swing well, it solidifies an already stacked offense headlined by Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon, and Juan Soto.
We saw how good Murphy was in the 2015 playoffs, and the positive effect it had for the Mets. If Murphy and the Nats peak at the right time, there’s no reason why they can’t beat the NL’s finest, and eventually capture their first World Series crown in franchise history.
Keep in mind that this is not the first time the Nats have had a stacked roster with World Series talent. Since 2012, they’ve had home field advantage in four Division series, yet lost all of them in demoralizing fashion. While they have the firepower to keep up with any team, they have an equal chance at coming up short of their postseason conquest.
Despite Scherzer having another Cy Young-type year, the starting rotation has been suspect all year long. After Scherzer, no one in the Nats rotation has stepped up all year. It’s tough to rely on Strasburg because he’s injury-prone, and no one knows how good he’ll be when he gets back. Gio has been average at best, with a 4.04 ERA, but his control issues are really scary, as he’s walked at least four batters in five out of his last seven starts. Tanner Roark and Jeremy Hellickson have been serviceable, but neither of them have put together a consistent string of quality starts this year. Also, their two best relievers, Herrera and Doolittle, just got placed on the DL, leaving them with little bullpen support at the moment.
The Nats have looked like half the team they were from the last two years, despite a majority of their roster staying the same. When that happens, there’s one person who’s primarily responsible: the manager. The Nats have floundered to reach the same level of success with Dave Martinez as they had with Dusty Baker. Players don’t play hard for Martinez and have publicly expressed concern with how he manages the bullpen and handles the players.
Similar to the Caps up until this year, the Nats just have not been able to get over the hump. Last year in the NLDS, they were clearly the superior team to the Cubs, yet they lost in heartbreaking fashion in five games. The key players did not step up in big moments, as it was Max Scherzer, out of all players, who blew the lead in a decisive game five last year.
Again, though, this team has too much talent to not make the playoffs. The Braves and Phillies are young, developing teams with no real shot at competing for a World Series. The Nats play all their divisional opponents at least once in August and have a better run differential than both the Braves and Phillies. The opportunity is there, but the Nats need to show who they really are and beat their NL East opponents.
If the Nats clinch their division, they’d likely face the Cubs or Dodgers in the NLDS. Both teams boast a plethora of quality, experienced postseason arms: the Cubs have Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Cole Hamels, and Kyle Hendricks, while the Dodgers have Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Rich Hill, and Alex Wood. The Nats pitching simply won’t be deep enough to win a five or seven game series, and they can’t escape the demons of their past.
Even after a turbulent summer, the Nationals still find themselves in the heat of the playoff race. Personally, I think they are going to outlast the Phillies and Braves to win the division, but I don’t see them making it past the NLDS yet again. With a month and a half left, it’s up to them to make their playoff push now, before it’s too late.