Story by Andy Tabor
Photo by Keith Allison
Make baseball fun again. The phrase that Bryce Harper coined in early April has seemingly become the modus operandi of the 2016 Washington Nationals.
Six straight wins including a three game sweep of their rival New York Mets has to constitute as fun for Washington’s fans and players alike. A walk off by outfielder Ben Revere in the 14th inning is a great example of fun. Two curtain calls one night earlier earned by much maligned shortstop Danny Espinosa after he cranked a grand slam from the right side of the plate and then a three run shot from the left side, would also be defined as fun.
What truly started the spree of fun was the three game sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies followed by a series win over the upstart Chicago Cubs. Outfielder Jayson Werth provided the real fun in those two series, getting walk off hits in each series finale.
Even a double rain delay on Tuesday night was still fun as baseball’s best prospect pitcher Lucas Giolito dazzled fans and frustrated Mets’ batters despite only going four innings. The Nats would go on to win 5-0 and even though Giolito was called up to replace the injured Stephen Strasburg in the rotation, he could be here to stay.
Especially if another Gio continues to perform poorly.
While everything seemingly has been ideal for Washington this season, the team has noticeable flaws. After taking the first two games of a four game series against the San Diego Padres, the Nats’ faulty bullpen, reminiscent of 2015, reared its ugly head. Reliever Felipe Rivero gave up six earned runs without recording an out, which allowed the Padres to come back from a two run deficit to win 7-3, wasting a great start by pitcher Max Scherzer.
The Nats would then spiral into a losing streak that lasted seven games, including one of the worst single performances in Major League Baseball history turned in by outfielder Michael A. Taylor against the Dodgers. If you think striking out swinging five times is bad enough, Taylor let a ground ball to center field go under his glove, which allowed Dodger’s outfielder Yasiel Puig to circle the bases and cross home for the game winning run.
Although nothing was fun about that, the way the team has bounced back against the Mets showed a type of mental toughness that was not apparent one season ago. Washington are now the proud owners of a 6-3 record against New York and have actually benefited from the Mets’ deep 2015 postseason run.
New York pitcher’s Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz and Jacob deGrom each have either been below their normal par or injured for much of the year. For Harvey in particular, pitching the high amount of innings in 2015 after Tommy John surgery, has to be a contributing factor to his struggles.
It would appear ignoring an inning’s limit to chase a World Series title might not be such a good idea after all.
The Nats’ ace on the other hand has been lights out lately. In Scherzer’s most recent outing against the Mets, the former Missouri Tiger allowed two hits over 7.1 innings to go along with 10 strikeouts.
Aiding Scherzer and the rest of the pitching staff on offense are the top two batters in the National League in terms of batting average. Former Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy owns a .351 average while catcher Wilson Ramos enjoys a .340 average, which is .009 points higher than the third place batter. In the off-season Ramos got lasik eye surgery which has clearly affected his hitting in a positive way.
While batting average doesn’t tell the whole story, both Murphy and Ramos should represent the Nationals in San Diego for the All-Star game in a little over a week. If either or both are selected, they would join Harper who is a lock to start in the outfield while Strasburg (if healthy) could potentially join the group as well.
After Washington finishes their series against Cincinnati on Sunday, the team will remain in the nation’s capital to take on Milwaukee in a three game set. While the Nats play the bottom of the NL Central, the Mets will finish their current series against the Cubs prior to a series against the Marlins. Then, yet another crucial Nats-Mets series will be waged in New York before the All-Star break.
As it stands now, the Nats are six games up on the Mets and are in a position to push that lead to 10 games before the break. Although that’s a lofty goal, leaving the Mets in their wake by mid-July would allow the Nats to continue playing loose while the team shifts focus on getting the best record in baseball. And what could be more fun than that.