- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

This is more like it. This is what we expected from the Washington Nationals all along, winning a pair here and three-of-a-kind there, settling in at the table with one of baseball’s best hands.

They misplayed their cards last year and have spent most of this season with less than a full deck. But they’re beginning to roll now, picking up in the second half where they left off at the All-Star break.

The Nationals embarked on a nine-game road trip following Sunday’s thrilling, walk-off victory against Milwaukee. They opened the second half by taking two of three from the Brewers and improved to 26-15 since June 1, 18-11 since June 15.

We haven’t seen that sort of sustained success since the tail end of last season, when they mounted a too-little-too-late push and failed to reach the playoffs. The Nats had set us up with their “World-Series-or-bust” attitude and everyone was crushed at the end.

The crash — along with the Washington Wizards’ playoff run and the huge interest in World Cup soccer — might explain the Nats’ precipitous dip in local TV viewership. According to Sports Business Journal, ratings in the D.C. market through the first week of July were down 34 percent from the same point last season. Only the Dodgers and Rangers had bigger drops.

Last year, fans were still heady off the 2012 joy ride, anticipating a much better ending than Game 5 of the Division Series against St. Louis. Washington was a near-consensus pick to win the pennant in 2013 and former manager Davey Johnson seconded that notion whenever asked about it — if he didn’t bring it up on his own.

Rookie manager Matt Williams is much more low-key, just like in his playing days, when he circled the bases with his head down after homering, as if embarrassed for the pitcher.

This skipper is less colorful but the Nats arguably are more compelling. Their enhanced competitiveness should result in more victories as well as viewers down the stretch. Considering that they reached first place in the NL East despite having their Opening Day roster intact for less than one month, they should pull ahead if health doesn’t derail them.

Upcoming opponents are less than foreboding. After disposing of Milwaukee, the Nats were set to face Colorado, Miami, Philadelphia, the New York Mets and Arizona in 20 of the next 30 games. Those five teams — not a winner among them — were a combined 217-273 (.443).

While the Nats attempt to fatten up on the NL’s dregs, Williams will continue his juggling act. Other managers wish they had similar problems, determining when and where to play Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon and Bryce Harper. All while leaving one of the league’s best defensive second basemen, Danny Espinosa, in reserve.

Thankfully, winning is a magical elixir that’s capable of curing any ailment. Williams‘ lineup of Denard Span in center with Zimmerman at third, Rendon at second and Harper in left didn’t get the latter’s stamp of approval earlier this month when he returned from the disabled list. He wanted Espinosa at second and Span on the bench, but the leadoff hitter has proven Williams correct by hitting safely in 13 of 14 games.

The Zimmerman experiment has been a success thus far, too, as he shifted from third to left and back to third without a hitch, He’s also smoking the ball since June 24, going 28-for-79 ( .354) entering the Colorado series and delivering multiple timely hits — like the two-run, game-tying homer in the series finale against Milwaukee.

But pitching continues to be the Nats’ bedrock and best bet for postseason play. They have one of baseball’s top bullpens to mop up for one of baseball’s top rotations. Even with Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister spending time on the DL, Washington leads the league in team ERA, with fifth starter Tanner Roark posting numbers (2.91 ERA) that would lead other staffs.

Gonzalez had the rotation’s highest ERA entering Sunday and it rose to 3.74 after he lasted just 3 1/3 innings and allowed three runs. He dismissed the outing as post-All-Star malaise that included nine days off and a missed flight that cost him a bullpen session.

Story Continues →