Apr 17, 2014, 6:00 AM EDT
We begin with a caveat that should be included in just about any analysis written about a major-league ballclub before the calendar shifts to May: It’s early, so it’s entirely possible this trend won’t sustain itself over the full season.
But it has become the defining quality of the 2014 Nationals, at least to date: The ability to beat up on other clubs late in games.
Last night’s 6-3 win in Miami was only the latest example, though one of the most dramatic. Trailing 3-0 entering the sixth inning, the Nationals tied the game on Jayson Werth’s three-run homer, then took the lead and expanded on it two innings later on Zach Walters’ homer and Ian Desmond’s two-run single.
Combined with some lights-out work from the back end of the bullpen, the Nationals beat the Marlins 6-0 over the game’s final four innings. Which was nothing new for this club.
So far this season, the Nats have outscored opponents 48-16 from the sixth inning on.
Stop and think about that for a moment, because it’s a staggering stat. That means the Nationals are scoring an average of 3.20 runs from the sixth inning on, while giving up only 1.07.
How lopsided is that disparity? It’s monstrous. Consider that last season, the Nationals were outscored in those final innings by an average score of 1.69-1.62. Even during their division-championship 2012 season, which featured plenty of late-game heroics, the Nationals outscored opponents by a mere 1.83-1.64 from the sixth inning on.
So, 2 1/2 weeks into this season, they’ve managed to double their late-game offensive output from 2013, while reducing the number of runs they allow by 37 percent.
Now, it would be foolish to believe the Nationals can sustain anything close to that rate. Teams just don’t average nearly a run per inning over the long haul, especially late innings against top relievers. But clearly this year’s team seems to have some quality about it that last year’s disappointing squad lacked.
— The bench is significantly improved. Nationals reserves (ie. players who weren’t in that night’s starting lineup) are now hitting a collective .310 with a .396 on-base percentage and .476 slugging percentage. Over the entirety of 2013, reserves hit a collective .207 with a .264 on-base percentage and .351 slugging percentage.
— The bullpen has been much better than you probably realize. Yes, Tyler Clippard is off to a rocky start. But collectively, Nationals relievers currently boast a 2.39 ERA, third-best in the majors. This, despite throwing the third-most innings of any bullpen in baseball to date.
— They’re taking advantage of some bad bullpens. Obviously, the Nationals have benefited from nine games so far against the Mets and Marlins, whose relief corps are somewhat lacking. Even the Braves, who most would say own one of the majors’ very best bullpens, are off to a shaky start with a collective 4.75 ERA.
Whatever the reason, the 2014 Nationals have been remarkably successful late in games. To expect this to continue at this rate would be foolish. But it’s certainly reasonable to believe this team can be very good in late innings.
And the more times they pull off late-game heroics like we’ve already seen several times in only 2 1/2 weeks, the greater their confidence level rises when faced with more situations that call for late heroics.
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