Gio Gonzalez’s re-emergence as a All-Star level starting pitcher has helped the Nationals solidify their position atop the National League East.
When a team has practically clinched its divisional title and we’re still 20 or so hours from Labor Day, a lot of things have gone right for that squad. Going into the 2017 season, the Nationals knew that they could count on Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg to be top of the rotation starters and Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon to be offensive forces. Those players have not disappointed, as Scherzer, Strasburg, Harper and Murphy made the All-Star team and Rendon deserved to be there as well.
However it takes more than five stars to create a team with championship potential, and Washington has benefited from having other players step up and be major contributors when perhaps they were only expected to be role players. Here’s a look at my five top most pleasant surprises for the 2015 Nats.
#5- WELCOME BACK
Young starter Joe Ross saw his season ended early by injury, leaving a void for the Nats in the fifth starter position of their talented rotation. Into the breech stepped a figure from the past, who has stepped in and solved what could have been a major problem.
In 2012, Edwin Jackson won 10 games for a division winning Nats’ squad. He had some great games, including a complete game two hitter to beat Cincinnati 4-1 on April 14th, but had some duds (nine runs allowed in 1.1 innings pitched at St. Louis on September 28th) as well.
The 2017 version of Jackson has been consistent, as he’s thrown at least five innings in all eight of his starts for Washington while allowing no more than four earned runs in any of his starts.
#4- TYING UP LOOSE ENDS
If we were to go back in time to mid-July and listen in to virtually any programming related to Major League Baseball, discussions of the Nationals’ bullpen woes would be prominent. Six weeks later, the Nats remain firmly entrenched as one of baseball’s top teams and their reshaped bullpen appears to be equipped to do the job into October.
The surprise here is not that veterans Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler have had success in DC, but rather that Washington GM Mike Rizzo was able to resolve what may have been a fatal defect without giving up any of the team’s prized prospects. The Nats’ three headed monster at the back of the bullpen has been dominant, and the acquisition of those hurlers has allowed Matt Albers and Oliver Perez to thrive in lesser roles.
#3- YOUTH IS SERVED
The 2017 Nationals have been one of baseball’s best teams despite their having more than their share of crucial injuries. A big reason for that has been the play of a trio of young players who have contributed more than expected this year.
Following the 2016 season in which he struggled mightily, Michael A. Taylor’s career with the Nationals seemed in jeopardy. An early season injury to starting centerfielder Adam Eaton gave Taylor another opportunity to play, and he has not disappointed this time. Taylor has hit .269 with 13 home runs and 39 RBI and has provided top level defense in the middle of the Nationals’ outfield.
Another young outfielder also stepped up and contributed mightily for the Nats this year. Left-handed swinging Brian Goodwin suffered an injury of his own about a month ago but before that, the powerful first year player had 13 homers in 251 at bats and showed an ability to play all three positions in the outfield.
Wilmer Difo’s emergence has been a shot in the arm for a Nats’ team that battled through injuries to starting shortstop Trea Turner. The energetic Difo has hit .289 with a .341 on base percentage, has hit five home runs, stolen eight bases and played solid defense at a variety of positions.
#2- STILL THE FACE OF THE FRANCHISE
The toll of suffering numerous injuries took Ryan Zimmerman from being an All-Star level player to one who to some seemed incapable of recapturing his old form. In 2017, Zimmerman has gone a long way toward showing his skeptics the errors of their ways.
A blistering start to the season has helped Zimmerman put up vintage Zim-like numbers (.300 average, 29 homers, 89 RBI through games of Sept. 2nd) that have given Washington’s opponents another bat to worry about when facing the Nats’ powerful lineup. Zimmerman has also done a sterling job in the field at first base, showing an ability to deal with wild throws and turn potential errors for his teammates into outs.
#1- AN ACE AGAIN
From 2014 through 2016, Nats’ lefty Gio Gonzalez had a combined WAR of 5.9. So far in his amazing 2017 campaign, Gonzalez WAR is at 6.5.
Gonzalez has won 13 of his 19 decisions with a 2.58 ERA and a career best 1.139 WHIP so far this year. With both Scherzer and Strasburg missing time with injuries, Gonzalez has been the anchor for a Nats’ rotation that is among baseball’s best.