Aug 14, 2014, 6:00 AM EDT
There was Kevin Frandsen’s complete mishandling of a routine fly ball, letting the game’s first run score. There were two more errors by Adam LaRoche and Wilson Ramos. There was a mini-meltdown of sorts by Jordan Zimmermann in the bottom of the seventh. And there was, of course, a heart attack of a ninth inning provided by Rafael Soriano.
This was not the prettiest of ballgames. And yet the Nationals emerged last night with a 3-2 victory over the Mets.
This hasn’t necessarily been the prettiest of seasons, either. And yet the Nationals went to sleep last night 5 games up in the NL East, with a better than 90 percent chance of winning the division and a better than 93 percent chance of making the postseason (according to Baseball Prospectus’ daily playoff odds algorithm).
It’s not always easy to remember this, because if you watch this team play every day, you’re left with an uneasy feeling. This doesn’t seem to be going as smoothly as it should. This team should be playing better, should be winning more games in more convincing fashion, should be leaving little doubt about its status as one of baseball’s few real World Series contenders.
But it’s not. There seem to be more question marks than definitive answers. There seem to be more underperformers than overperformers.
Nothing seems to be coming easy to the Nationals.
Here’s the thing: That’s OK. It’s not the end of the world. So, the Nats aren’t utterly destroying everything in their path. Neither is anybody else in the National League.
There isn’t one team in the NL right now that feels like it’s playing up to its full potential. Nobody’s perfect, nor is anybody even close to perfect.
The Nationals, though, have fewer problems than pretty much anybody else. Maybe anybody but the Dodgers. The Brewers have a suspect pitching staff. The Pirates are missing Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole. The Cardinals are missing Yadier Molina and Michael Wacha and can’t score runs. The Reds are missing Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips and also can’t score runs. The Giants are 21-36 since early June. And the Braves? Well, since April 27 the only NL clubs with worse records are the Phillies and Rockies.
So, yeah, the Nationals sorely miss Ryan Zimmerman. And Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez aren’t pitching the way they should be pitching. And Bryce Harper isn’t hitting the way he should be hitting. And the bench has been awful. And the closer is a nightly high-wire act.
On the other hand, Jayson Werth was NL Player of the Month in July. Denard Span dramatically has morphed into the best leadoff hitter in the league over the last six weeks. Ian Desmond has 22 percent more RBI than any other MLB shortstop. Anthony Rendon, Adam LaRoche and Wilson Ramos all contribute on an above-average basis. Doug Fister is pitching like an ace. Tanner Roark and Jordan Zimmermann are right behind him. The bullpen still ranks fourth in the majors. The defense has committed a total of 19 errors over its last 52 games (including last night’s 3-error performance).
The Nationals are a good team. Are they a great team? Perhaps not. But, again, there don’t appear to be any great teams in the NL this season. At least not as we sit here on August 14.
So why so much angst and hand-wringing? Maybe we all remember 2012 too well, remember how easily the Nationals cruised to the NL East title and an MLB-best 98 wins. We all think the 2014 Nationals should be better, and thus should have an easier time in their march toward October.
Here’s the problem: It doesn’t usually come that easy. Rarely does a team cakewalk its way through the 162-game grind. And those that do don’t always win come October anyway. Only three times in the last 15 years has the team with the majors’ best regular-season record gone on to win the World Series.
So take a moment this morning and stop pulling out your hair. Stop worrying about this lineup’s inconsistent results. Stop fretting about whether Strasburg or Gonzalez would be left out of a postseason rotation. Stop questioning Soriano’s ability to close out a game when it really matters.
Are those all legitimate areas of concern? Sure. But you know what? It wouldn’t be a real pennant race without some level of concern.
Yes, Washington’s baseball team is in a pennant race. It’s something that could be said perhaps only four times in the last 80 years. Enjoy this for what it is.
Because it sure beats the alternative.
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