The Washington Nationals have the best record in the majors. Say it often enough, and it begins to sound like: “We’ve put a man on the moon!” (or something similarly historic).
But a glance at the standings — a lingering glance, because there’s such a wonderful strangeness about them — confirms that the Nationals were, indeed, a vertigo-inducing 71-43 going into Sunday’s series finale against Arizona. And unlike the last time the franchise reached such heights, in 1994 (as the Montreal Expos), the players association isn’t going to go on strike and spoil the fun. The Nats will be allowed to fulfill their destiny, whatever it may be.
You think of Walter Cronkite’s words after Neil Armstrong announced the Eagle had landed: “Right now, after seeing it happen, knowing that it happened, it still feels like a dream.” The Nationals’ recent play inspires a similar sense of disorientation because, well, Washington hasn’t exactly been the capital of the hardball universe over the decades. In fact, from 1972 through 2004, we didn’t even have a horse in the race.
But we do now, and it’s turned out to be quite the thoroughbred. Before the season, I felt a bit skittish about predicting that the Nats would win 88 games and make the playoffs as a wild card. It’s becoming increasingly clear, though, that I was underselling them — by more than a little. It’s scary to imagine where this team might be if it hadn’t been hit by long-term injuries to such core players as Mike Morse, Jayson Werth, Drew Storen and Wilson Ramos, never mind the extended absences of Ian Desmond and Ryan Zimmerman.
But this might be the biggest surprise of all: The Nationals had the organizational depth to weather the storm. They were further along in their development, that is, than it seemed. Consider how they’ve handled the above losses:
Morse: Missed the first 50 games. Record while he was out: 29-21.
Werth: Missed 75 games. Record while he was out: 43-32.
Ramos: Has missed 81 games (and counting). Record while he’s been out: 50-31.
Storen: Missed the first 89 games. Record while he was out: 53-36.
Desmond: Has missed 21 games (and counting). Record while he’s been out: 17-4.
Zimmerman: Missed 13 games. Record while he was out: 7-6.
That’s right, the Nats have managed to stay above .500 while each of these players was on the disabled list. And from May 13 through 30, when they were most depleted — no Morse, Werth, Ramos or Storen — they still found a way to go 8-9. This is why they are where they are, looking down on the rest of baseball. Despite a string of injuries that could have been debilitating, they’ve never destabilized.
In a dugout full of gamers, two players stand out: Tyler Clippard and Danny Espinosa. I mean, how many clubs have a guy like Clippard, a set-up man who can step into the closer’s role at a moment’s notice and put up All-Star-quality numbers (24 saves in 27 chances)? And how many clubs have a guy like Espinosa, a second baseman who can slide over to shortstop and hold the fort — and then some — until the starter returns?
And Desmond, let’s not forget, was scalding the ball when he went on the shelf with a torn oblique. In his previous 20 games, he’d hit .380 with a 1.196 OPS and six homers. But it hasn’t mattered — at least, not so far. The Nationals’ train has just kept moving on.
Their surge to the top has attracted such attention that people like ESPN’s Rick Sutcliffe are figuring out ways for Stephen Strasburg to pitch through September and still stay within his presumed 180-inning limit. (Amazingly, it doesn’t involve Strasburg playing under an assumed name. It just calls for John Lannan to jump in a few times and push Stephen’s start back a day.)
With Morse and Werth playing regularly again, the lineup has a totally different — and much more menacing — look. The Nats still have the best pitching in either league, but they aren’t nearly as dependent on it as they were earlier. When they’re down 4-1 in the fifth now, as they were in Arizona on Saturday night, they have the “thunder” (Davey Johnson’s preferred term) to come from behind.
The regular season still has eight weeks to go, of course, time enough for lots of stuff to happen. But you get the feeling Nationals have seen the worst of that “stuff” — and what they haven’t seen, they can handle.