- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 18, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Ryan Zimmerman can’t throw! The bullpen is a mess! Dan Haren was a terrible signing! Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez have only won one game each!

The anxiety coming from portions of those who swear by Natitude is getting a little thick. World Series or bust? How about just plain bust?

Allow us, please, to throw a little cold water on that craziness. Calm the heck down.

When Nationals manager Davey Johnson said World Series or bust, he didn’t mean by the middle of April. And here’s some news: If the season ended Thursday, the Nationals — even with all those “problems” — would qualify for the playoffs.

Which sounds just as stupid to say now as it does to say the season is already off the rails.

The Nationals won nine of their first 15 games, a record that is among the best in baseball in the early going. If they can manage to win nine out of every 15 games they’ll play, they’ll have 90 victories with 12 to play. That should put them in pretty good shape. Of course, they’ll have some 15-game stretches where they win more than nine, and some where they lose more than six.

There’s really nothing terribly alarming about what’s going on with the Nats so far. The only things that make it look awry is they were swept by the Braves and Atlanta is off to a 12-2 start. They could indeed be playing catchup all season but that’s a reflection of the Braves’ quality rather than the Nats’ lack thereof. Remember Washington got off to a 14-4 start last season (and still didn’t take over first place for good until May 22).

Are there some issues with the Nationals? No question, but that hardly makes them stand out among the 30 major league teams.

Haren, signed in the offseason to fill out the rotation, hasn’t looked like a three-time All-Star. The bullpen hasn’t looked terribly sharp. Zimmerman’s throwing errors might be the main reason for two of the six losses.

Of those issues, Haren is probably the biggest concern only because he has no real track record here. Did the Nationals catch him on the decline? Or is he just off to a miserable start? The bullpen, when it is all added up, will be more good than bad (but not perfect). Zimmerman’s throwing problems are exacerbated by the fact that he had offseason shoulder surgery. But let’s clear our heads and remember throwing has always been a bit of a dicey proposition for The Face of the Franchise. His range and his glove are exceptional. His throws can be dangerous.

Those issues shouldn’t cloud the fact that there’s actually been more to like than dislike about the Nats’ start.

Gonzalez and Strasburg each have one brilliant game and one bad game. All starters are going to lay an egg now and then. Gonzalez left with a lead the bullpen couldn’t hold in his other start. Strasburg lost on a day when he gave up two unearned runs (see Zimmerman/throws above).

The other two starters, Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler, have been exceptional. Zimmermann is 3-0. Detwiler is 1-0 and would be 3-0 if the bullpen hadn’t coughed up two big leads (5-1 and 4-1). Going back to last season’s playoffs, Detwiler has been lights out in four straight starts.

Bryce Harper, the Nats’ 20-year-old MVP candidate, has been playing like an MVP candidate. He’s hitting .364 with five home runs and 11 RBI.

Zimmerman, despite a .226 batting average, also has 11 RBI. His joking concern that Harper would drive everyone in was for naught.

Denard Span, acquired in the offseason to fill a void at the top of the lineup, has been working pitch counts and getting on base at a .421 clip. He’s also proven adept in center field.

Kurt Suzuki and Ian Desmond are off to strong starts at the plate. Desmond hits a double seemingly every time up. OK, only seven so far, but that was tied for the league lead going into Thursday’s games. Suzuki has a .360 batting average and six of his nine hits have been for extra bases.

The Nats may not catch the Braves. Atlanta certainly isn’t going to win 12 out of every 14 games it plays, but the Braves are legit. Don’t dismiss their fast start as merely that. They, like the Nats, are championship material.

But don’t dismiss the Nats, either, just because they got swept by Atlanta in an early-season series.

For now, all you need to do is relax and enjoy what looks to be another fun season.