As the weather starts to cool down, the MLB postseason is just beginning. Teams across the league are preparing for a World Series push, with a few legitimate contenders beginning to emerge, including the Washington Nationals.
The Nationals’ growth into one of MLB’s heavyweights has been a long time coming. It was only seven years ago that they drafted Bryce Harper first overall. Now, Harper is arguably the best all-around player in the majors, and the Nationals are poised to make some serious noise in the postseason. Led by one of the best lineups and pitching staffs in the MLB, the Nationals finished the regular season 97-63, NL East Champions, third in team batting average, and sixth in runs scored. They will look to continue this success in the World Series hunt, hoping to avoid another early NLDS exit.
The 2017 Nationals are a different team than last year’s team. The Nats are good and this year they know it. In Dusty Baker’s second season as manager, they are playing with the confidence of a team that is a perennial contender rather than being surprised by their own talent. Dusty has managed to change the culture of the Nats’ locker room, convincing them that they are as dominate as their record indicates. Despite totaling over 90 wins for the second year in a row, they are once again a 2-seed, due to the Dodgers’ outstanding season. As the 2-seed, the Nationals will host a Chicago Cubs team that has bounced back from its first half struggles, and is playing almost as well last year’s World Series winners. In order to fight their way into the NLCS, and hopefully the Fall Classic, the Nationals will need to rely on their lineup and pitching staff playing as well as they have all season long.
The main concern for the Nationals is their bullpen, which has been atrocious all year long, even after the acquisition of stud reliever Brandon Kintzler. The Nationals have 16 pitchers that have appeared in at least 20 games throughout the season. Of these 16, seven are relief pitchers who have ERAs above 4.00. Closer Sean Doolittle has been the lone bright spot in an otherwise horrendous bullpen. Doolittle has a 2.81 ERA, 24 saves, and 62 strikeouts in 51.1 innings pitched this season. Unfortunately for the Nats, Doolittle cannot throw every inning of relief throughout the entire postseason.
Nonetheless, the Nationals’ lineup is one of the best in MLB, and could produce enough runs to cushion their weak bullpen. Led by the continued production of Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, and Ryan Zimmerman and the emergence of Trea Turner and Michael Taylor as budding stars, the Nationals’ offense is poised to continue putting up big numbers in the postseason. In addition to their lineup, the Nats’ starting pitchers are some of the strongest in the entire league, featuring team ace Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg (who would be an ace on virtually any other team), and the third man to their three-headed monster, Gio Gonzalez.
The Nationals’ road to the World Series runs through the Dodgers, the only team with the offensive fire power and starting rotation to compete with the Nationals. Clayton Kershaw continues to be one of the most dominant pitchers in MLB, and is joined by Yu Darvish, Alex Wood, and Rich Hill. Their bullpen is also deeper and stronger than the Nationals’. Compared to the Nationals’ seven relief pitchers with plus- 4.00 ERAs, the Dodgers only have three relief pitchers with plus- 4.00 ERAs.
Despite the Dodgers having a slight edge overall, 2017 will be the year of the Nationals. Their pitching rotation is deep enough to compete with the Dodgers, their lineup can hit for both average and power, and while their bullpen is suspect at best, they will be able to maintain the leads their offense produces. Ultimately, the X-factor for this years’ Nats team is their new-found confidence.
After so many seasons of being the bottom-dwellers of the NL, the Nationals have finally reached legitimacy. 2016 was merely their first taste of the postseason. Dusty Baker has convinced them that last year was no fluke. This year’s Nationals believe that they belong atop the NL, that they cannot only compete with anyone, but that they can beat anyone. Their confidence will be the deciding factor in how deep their postseason run is. This year, the Nats’ confidence will be enough to complete their transformation from perennial laughingstock to World Series Champions.
Photo: Amanda Bowen/MLB Photos