The Five Biggest Pleasant Surprises for the 2017 Washington Nationals

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Washington Nationals

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.

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Nationals Notes- July 30th

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Former National Ian Desmond celebrates his walk-off home run on May 2, 2012 that gave the Nationals a 5-4 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks.

With the Nationals a comfortable 12.5 games ahead of the Miami Marlins in the National League East on the day before the 2017 trade deadline, here’s a look at a few notes of interest coming out of the past five games.

WELCOME BACK

What is not to like about former National shortstop Ian Desmond?  Desmond plays the game with passion, is beloved by all who have played with him and, by all accounts, is one of the finest people in baseball as well.

Desmond made his return to Nationals Park this weekend as a member of the Colorado Rockies, but unfortunately will not be able to participate in the series due to injury.

The Florida native was a three time Silver Slugger award winner for Washington, and was an integral part of the Nationals’ rise from cellar dwellers to National League East champions.

Probably the best season for Desmond came in 2012, when he hit. .292 with 25 homers, drove in 73 runs and made the National League All-Star squad in Washington’s first division winning season.   The talented infielder was particularly strong at Nationals Park that season, hitting .310 with 16 home runs and posting a .888 OPS.

BANG ZOOM X 10

Brian Goodwin joined the Nats’ double digit home run club by hitting his 10th in the Nationals’ eight home run effort in its 15-2 trouncing of Milwaukee on July 27th.  Goodwin became the sixth Nationals’ player with 10 or more homers in 2017, joining Bryce Harper (27), Ryan Zimmerman (22), Anthony Rendon (21), Daniel Murphy (17) and Michael A. Taylor (12).    The Nationals’ high mark for most players with 10 or more home runs in a season is eight, set in 2015 and equaled last season.  With Jayson Werth and Adam Lind standing at eight round trippers each and with Matt Wieters and Trea Turner both with seven, there’s a decent chance that the 2017 Nationals will be record setters in this category.

BANG ZOOM X 5

There have been 18 instances of a National League team’s hitting five or more home runs in a game this season, and the Nats lead the way with four such games. In addition to the record-setting eight home run performance on Thursday against the Brewers, the Nats clubbed seven in a 23-5 rout of the Mets on April 30th, hit five in a 13-3 win at Oakland on June 2nd and also hit five in their 14-4 win at Cincinnati on July 17th.

Since 2012, Washington’s 13 five plus home run games trails only Colorado’s 15 among National League teams.

MAKE ROOM FOR SOME HARDWARE

Nationals’ players stand at the top of the Wins Above Replacement totals among both National League batters and pitchers.

Among position players, Anthony Rendon’s 4.9 leads the league with teammate Bryce Harper next at 4.7. Harper comfortably leads the league in OPS at 1.075, with Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt a distant second at 1.017.

Max Scherzer’s 5.5 mark easily leads the way among hurlers, with teammate Gio Gonzalez second at 4.6.   Stephen Strasburg is eighth among National League pitchers at 3.2,

In his bid for his third career Cy Young Award, Scherzer is on pace to become only the second pitcher since 2003 to have 300 or more strikeouts in a season. Scherzer has a league leading 201 punch outs in his first 21 starts.

Gonzalez allowed only two runs in seven strong innings on Wednesday night, but got a no decision in Washington’s 8-5 comeback win over Milwaukee.  The lefty has allowed three or fewer earned runs in all 10 of his starts at Nationals Park this season.

ODDS AND ENDS

Infielder Wilmer Difo has eight RBI in his last 40 at bats after driving in seven in his first 110 of the season. In his last ten games, Difo is hitting .300 with ten runs scored and a pair of RBI.

New Nationals’ bench player Howie Kendrick is as consistent a player as they come.  In his 12 year Major League career, he’s hit .293 with a .753 OPS in games played at his home park while hitting .288 with a .751 OPS in games on the road. In the first halves of seasons Kendrick has a .287 average and a .746 OPS, while hitting .295 with a .740 OPS in road contests.   Among the reasons why picking up the veteran to fortify the Nats’ bench was a good idea is his performance against left-handed pitchers so far in 2017. In 38 at bats against southpaws, Kendrick is hitting .342 with a .918 OPS.

An unsung performer out of the Nats’ bullpen this year has been veteran Oliver Perez. The lefthander with the funky delivery struck out all three Rockies he faced on Saturday night, giving him 29 strikeouts in 22 innings pitched on the year.  Perez has been scored upon in only two of his last 18 outings, and has given up only six hits in 14 innings pitched during that span.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Game 96 Review- Nationals 4 Diamondbacks 3

during the MLB game at Chase Field on May 12, 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona.

Bryce Harper watches his majestic home run blast off of Arizona rookie Anthony Banda in the first inning of yesterday’s Nationals’ 4-3 win over the Diamondbacks at Chase Field.

WASHINGTON 4 ARIZONA 3

NATIONALS- 58-38, first place in the NL East, 11 games ahead of Atlanta

WP- Roark (8-6)  LP- Banda (0-1)  SV- Doolittle (2)

HR- Harper Was (25)

If the first two games of this weekend’s series are an indicator, a Washington-Arizona post-season matchup would be intriguing. On Saturday, it was the Nationals earning a one run victory as strong starting pitching,  extra-base power from the team’s superstar and a shutdown effort from the bullpen did the job for the visitors.

STARS OF THE GAME

Striking out 11 and allowing only two runs in seven innings pitched, Tanner Roark was on his game last night.  Roark consistently worked ahead of the Diamondbacks’ lineup, and registered his fourth game of 2017 where he’s gone at least seven innings and allowed two or fewer runs (Roark had 15 such efforts in the 2016 season).

A rookie making his Major League debut has few tougher tasks than facing a red-hot former league MVP who seems intent on putting another such trophy on his resume. Arizona’s Anthony Banda found that out in a big way in the top of the first when Bryce Harper hit a booming 467 foot home run.  The home run was the second longest of Harper’s career, behind only his 481 foot blast at Colorado off of Christian Bergman last August.  Harper also contributed a run scoring double to the Nats’ effort.

STRONG EFFORT IN A LOSS

Despite giving up Harper’s home run the left-handed Banda showed promising ability in his debut, but A.J. Pollock was the Diamondbacks best player on the night.   The talented centerfielder went 2-4 for a triple and two runs scored.

NATS NOTES

Rookie Brian Goodwin had three hits, including a double, in five at bats.  Goodwin now has five three hit games this year. Among National Leaguers who have played 75 or fewer games in their careers, only Los Angeles’ Cody Bellinger (with six) has more.

Another Nats’ youngster who is starting to look as though he belongs in the Majors is infielder Wilmer Difo.  Difo had another hit last night, giving him a .395 average and a .490 on base percentage in games played in July.

Despite some slight bumps in the road, Washington’s new back end of the bullpen duo of Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle got the job done last night. Madson worked around a one out double to put up his third straight scoreless inning since joining the Nats.  Walking the leadoff man is usually not the right path to go down when trying to save a game, but Doolittle survived another free pass and a throwing error to nail down the victory.

UP NEXT

Stephen Strasburg takes his 10-3 record to the mound this afternoon against former Nationals’ farm hand Robbie Ray in a battle of All-Star hurlers.

Strasburg is 4-2 with a 3.28 ERA in his career against the Snakes, with a 3-2 mark and a 4.30 ERA in games played at Chase Field.  The fireballing righty has a 7.3 SO/9 record against Arizona in his career, the lowest mark against any opponent.  David Peralta is 4-6 with a homer in his career against Strasburg and Paul Goldschmidt has five hits in 16 at bats, while Daniel Descalso (0-6, two strikeouts) and Jake Lamb (0-6, three strikeouts) have struggled.

The left-handed Ray has surrendered three or fewer runs in 13 of his 18 starts this year, and has put up an impressive 145 strikeouts in his 112 innings pitched.  Ray has been especially tough on left-handed hitters, allowing them only three extra base hits (two doubles, one home run) in 77 at bats.  Two Nats who have had success against Ray in limited appearances are Difo (3 for 6 with a homer) and Ryan Zimmerman (3 for 5 with a double).

Game 91 Review- Nationals 14 Reds 4

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Another day, another outburst by the Nationals offense against an over-matched Reds pitching staff.  This time it was National League leading hitter Daniel Murphy doing the key damage as Washington routed Cincinnati 14-4 for its third straight victory coming out of the All-Star break.

NATIONALS 14 Reds 4

Record- 55-36, 9.5 games ahead of Atlanta in the National League East

WP- Roark (7-6)  LP- Bailey (2-3)

HR- Murphy, Was 2(16), Lind, Was (7), Rendon, Was (19), Lobaton, Was (3)

There are slow-pitch softball teams who don’t put up the runs at the level the Washington Nationals have this season.  The Cincinnati Reds are the latest team to run into the Nats’ buzz saw of an attack, falling on Sunday by a 14-4 score. Here’s a look at the key players and numbers from the Nats’ third straight win this weekend and their fourth victory in a row overall.

STARS OF THE GAME

Daniel Murphy is a student of hitting who works at his craft with a dedication matched by few.  Over the past few seasons Murphy has not only been a student, he’s been a teacher of lessons that have been tough to stomach for opposing pitchers.   The Cincinnati Reds know that all too well after today, as Murphy went 3 for 4 with two home runs and five RBI to lead the Nats to an easy win.  The two homer game was the second of Murphy’s time in DC, with the first coming against, of course, the Mets in June of 2016.   Murphy’s day lifted his National League leading batting average to .348, 20 points ahead of teammate Bryce Harper’s .328 mark.  Only Houston’s Jose Altuve, at .350, has a better average than Murphy among all qualified Major Leaguers.

While Murphy, Harper, Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman are typically the Nats’ hitters doing most of the damage, this year’s squad has contributors up and down the roster.  On Sunday, several of those unsung contributors stood out.  Wilmer Difo had three hits, scored three runs, stole a base and drove in a run.  Adam Lind also had three hits including a home run, scored two runs and drove in three.  Even former Reds outfielder Chris Heisey got into the act against his old team on Sunday, going 3 for 5 with two runs scored and a RBI.

NATS NOTES

Starting pitcher Tanner Roark had a strong outing, allowing only three unearned runs and four hits in six innings pitched to earn his seventh win on the year.  Roark and three relievers held the Reds without an extra-base hit.

Washington scored 14 or more runs for the seventh time this year and the 22nd time in Nats’ history.   Washington also registered its 17th five home run plus game since 2005, and its third of the 2017 season.  Three of those 17 games have come against Cincinnati.

Rendon’s long home run to left field was the 19th of season for the talented third baseman, only two shy of career high of 21 set in 2014.  Rendon’s 19 this season have come in 317 fewer at bats than it took him to hit 21 three seasons ago.

2017 has been anything but a smooth campaign for veteran Nats’ reliever Joe Blanton, but the righty has shown signs of improvement recently. Blanton pitched  a scoreless inning with three strikeouts to post his eighth straight appearance without giving up a run.

STRONG IN DEFEAT

A pair of Reds had good games at the plate. Outfielder Jesse Winker picked up a hit, scored a run and walked three times in five plate appearances.  Nats’ killer Scooter Gennett also was up to his old tricks, going 2 for 5 with three runs driven in.

UP NEXT

The Nats go for the four game sweep on Monday afternoon, with All-Star pitcher Stephen Strasburg taking the mound.  Strasburg, who will be looking to pick up his 10th win in the matinee game, is 1-1 with a 6.75 in four career games started at Cincinnati.   He’s fared well in the past against Zack Cozart (0-10 with two strikeouts) and Eugenio Suarez (0 for 5, two strikeouts), while struggling against Gennett (4 for 8, three home runs).

Opposing Strasburg will be veteran Scott Feldman, who is 7-6 with a 3.94 ERA on the year.  The tall righty has won five of his last seven decisions, and has a 3.00 ERA in home games in 2017.  Stephen Drew (7-16, two triples, two homers) and Lind (three homers and six RBI in 23 career at bats) have done well against Feldman, while Rendon (1 for 6 with two strikeouts) has had difficulty.