For the first time since 1932, a D.C. baseball team will play in the postseason. On Thursday night, the Nationals defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers 4-1, earning their 91st win of 2012. With just thirteen regular season games remaining, the victory guarantees the Nats a spot in the playoffs. In their division, their five-and-a-half game lead over the second-place Braves cuts their magic number for the NL East title to eight.
This fall will mark the club’s first playoff appearance since moving to D.C. in 2005, and only their second since the franchise was established way back in 1969, as the Montreal Expos. The Nationals are the second team to clinch a postseason berth this year, following the Reds who did the same earlier this afternoon. But, at 91-58, they’re not second-best. Their won-loss record is tops in the MLB and they’re on pace to shatter their franchise’s all-time wins mark of 95, set by the Expos in 1979.
This Nationals team is like no other in franchise history. They’re blessed with an extraordinary supply of blue-chip talent, yet they pummel their opponents with unrelenting, gritty, underdog effort. It’s cliche, but they play like no lead is safe, and like they’re behind when they’re ahead. That’s why they’re the undeniable kings of the 2012 MLB season– why they boast the best record in either league and why they’ve put together the most impressive overall performance. They’re consistent and they haven’t let-up at all, even when they’re clearly headed to the postseason. Davey’s crew is the only squad that has posted an above-.500 record in every month of this season, and they lead all teams with a 0.885 run differential per game. Despite their young age, they grind-out wins and they don’t cower when they face older competition. With tonight’s win, they’re now 43-37 against above-.500 clubs. They’ve also posted the league’s best road record (45-30).
Despite playing in a very neutral home park, the Nationals rank a top the league in all facets of the game. First of all, their offense has developed from shaky to potent. Built from top to bottom with flashy young sluggers, their lineup overcame a series of early-season injuries to mash 175 homeruns and post a .425 slugging percentage, second and third-best in the National League respectively. True to a prototypical Davey Johnson team, Washington’s hitters swing for the fences. Hit the ball hard or get on base and wait for the next guy. However, this strategy wouldn’t succeed without balance. Coming in to the Spring, the lineup drew criticism for it’s right-handedness. Seemingly all of their top hitters were righties– Werth, Zimmerman, Morse, Desmond, Ramos… And the critics were right. Last year, Nats’ hitters enjoyed a platoon advantage in just 48% of their at bats, about 5% less often than the average team. The emergence of Bryce Harper, Roger Bernadina, Adam LaRoche and Steve Lombardozzi has since silenced those doubters, though. This year, the Nats lead the NL with a 63-40 record against right-handed starters, and their batters benefit from a platoon advantage in 55% of their at bats (53% is league-average).
The Nationals can hit. They can really hit. But their pitching has been even better. The Nationals’ rotation is one of the best the game has seen in a long time, armed with five ace-caliber starters for most of the year. Washington’s arms have combined for the league’s best ERA (3.27), the third-most strikeouts (1,230), and they’ve held their opponents to the fewest hits and homeruns. Their starting rotation has combined for 9.3 wins above average and the battery is equipped with four pitchers that rank in the NL’s top-ten in ERA. Even Edwin Jackson, who isn’t one of those four, has still been a top-notch arm. The staff’s horse, Jackson has pitched 173 2/3 IP of quality baseball, totaling a 3.89 ERA and almost one full win above average (WAA).
Maybe most telling of their starting-five’s ridiculously nasty performance, Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler, are all expected to draw a heavy portion of the NL Cy Young vote this fall. Gio has the strongest case for the award, but Zimmermann could also finish in the top three or four. That’s four ace-caliber starting pitchers and two legitimate Cy Young award contenders. That kind of rotation depth is phenomenal. Their top-five starters have posted a quality start in 63% of their games this season (90/142). That means that Nationals starters are giving their team a legitimate chance to win, tossing six or more innings and holding their opponents to three or less runs, over ten percent more often than the rest of league’s starting pitchers (52% QS%). Though they’ll lose Strasburg for the playoffs, their four-man battery will still be October’s finest.
But the story of the Nationals’ 2012 season spans beyond flashy statlines and dominant pitching performances. This club is more than that. Their young stars play harder than their competition and they’re extraordinarily team-oriented for a sport known as a game of personal achievement and personal failure. After the club moved from Montreal to DC in 2005, they played some awful baseball. Finishing dead-last in the division in five of their first six seasons. The flip-side of their awful play was taking-home high draft picks annually, during a period that produced the best amateur talent the game has ever seen. So, they spent big in the draft and on player development, reeling-in futures stars like Ryan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler, Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen, Danny Espinosa and Bryce Harper. They focused on re-building, and their young stars grew together in the minor leagues, establishing bonds that would later help them build great club house chemistry.
This past season, the Nationals knack for picking each other up and playing team-oriented baseball was obvious in every inning of every game. When they lost Ryan Zimmerman, Mike Morse, Jason Werth, their most seasoned and recognizable players, to lengthy injuries early-on, they put their heads down and played top-notch baseball anyway. Ian Desmond and Roger Bernadina stepped their games up, Adam LaRoche played the best baseball of his career and a number of other young-guns pitched-in. Despite Drew Storen’s absence for more than half the season, the bullpen sat atop the league in saves throughout the summer.
Sure, the Nationals have stars and proven commodities, but that’s not what sets them apart. Plenty of much weaker teams, like the Dodgers, Brewers or Marlins for instance, boast just as many–or even more– recognizable names. In fact, many of the Nats’ most recognizable veterans heading in to the season, guys like Ryan Zimmerman, Mike Morse, Jason Werth, Wilson Ramos, John Lannan and Drew Storen, haven’t even been on the field for large chunks of time. The Nationals are more well-rounded than those other clubs. Their rookies play like veterans and their role players make the most of their opportunities.
When Jason Werth broke his wrist in May, the Nats’ front office decided to throw nineteen-year-old Bryce Harper in to the fire to fill the slugger’s spot on the lineup card. Despite his phenomenal talent, his young age and lack of experience tempered expectations. After all, even A-Rod struggled to hit .220 during his first two big league seasons. Above-replacement level production would’ve been more than enough from the teenage rookie. Harper stepped-up to the plate though, and he proceeded to tear the cover off the ball, playing so well that he even earned a spot on the National League All-Star team. Through 125 games, he’s hit .262/.333/.459 and his superb defense and balls-out baserunning have helped him play at a 4.1 rWAR (All-Star) level.
Besides Harper, plenty of other players have stepped-up from the bench or the minors and have put their own fingerprints on the Nationals excellent season. When Drew Storen went under the knife, Tyler Clippard took over the open closer’s role and posted a 1.93 ERA in the first-half, saving fourteen games in his first fifteen opportunities. Wilson Ramos and Mike Morse out? No problem. Despite losing two of their top three offensive contributors from the previous season to injury this Spring– Ramos went down for the season– Davey Johnson found a way to patch-up the team’s holes. In the middle of the order, Adam LaRoche far exceeded expectations. He hit .287/.381/.527 during Morse’s two month absence. Then, in a tough stretch heading in to the All-Star break, Ian Desmond and Tyler Moore carried a struggling lineup. The duo combined for a monster 1.140 OPS in the three weeks leading-up to the mid-summer classic.
Despite their hefty division lead, the Nats’ are still putting full-tilt effort forth in September. Tonight was no different. The players put their heads down and got it done. They brought the playoffs home to DC, picking-up some of their fallen or absent teammates in the process. The Nationals shut-down Stephen Strasburg earlier this month. One of the most talented pitchers the game has ever seen, Strasburg went 15-6 and posted a 3.16 ERA and led the league in strikeouts per nine innings this season. For any other team, losing their ace would be crippling, especially when they’re in the midst of their franchise’s first playoff run a long, long time. Losing Strasburg didn’t scare the Nationals a bit. All it meant is that the back of their talented rotation had to pick-up a little bit more slack. Ross Detwiler has picked-up the slack and then some. On Thursday he pitched six innings of three-hit, one run baseball, leading the club to victory. With Thursday’s dominant performance, Detwiler has now posted a 1.87 ERA through his four September starts.
After the game, Davey Johnson praised Detwiler’s pitching, saying that he was “masterful” and that “he handled himself great.” He also felt moved by Drew Storen’s electric pitching in the ninth inning, saying that he’d “never seen Storen so energized.”
A night after Tyler Clippard lost a heartbreaker in the ninth inning, serving up a long ball to Matt Kemp immediately after his lineup rallied their way back from a six-run deficit, Drew Storen made sure to help cover his teammate’s back. Facing Kemp and the meat of the Dodgers order in a save situation tonight, Storen struck-out the side and sealed the win. His stuff was flat-out nasty, and he looked the best he has this season. In his post-game MASN interview, Drew admitted that the extra pressure put some extra juice in his arm:
“It was an incredible experience. That’s one thing that I’ve said since coming back, I feel better than I ever had before. Just to be out there with a good group of guys is a lot of fun… To be able to lock this [playoff berth] down for them is a lot of fun… We’re all willing to do whatever it takes to get to the [World Series] and get that ring…I was having a good time out there. I’m gonna put that up there with the most fun I think I’ve ever had. It was incredible, starting when I came out of the bullpen, to hear the fans go nuts… It was just a great experience all the way around.”
No longer the regular closer, Storen missed the team’s first eighty-nine games while recovering from elbow surgery. Though he returned to the team right after the All-Star break, he wasn’t polished enough to re-assume his ninth inning role right away. His fastball velocity was inconsistent and his slider lacked it’s trademark wipeout break. He’s improved with every game throughout the past couple of months though, and he now appears to be finding his groove– just in time for the playoffs. Through his last fifteen games, the ice-water nerved righthander has tossed thirteen innings of one-run ball, striking out fourteen and holding opposing hitters to a .162/.162/.162 line.
The 1997 National League Manager of the Year, Davey Johnson has won before. He managed the 1986 Mets to one of the most memorable World Series championships in history, and his teams have won five division titles previously. He’s been around the block, but this season is a special one for Davey too. During his MASN post-game interview tonight, the Nats skipper admitted he enjoys working with young players and that he was particularly proud of his team’s work this season. Johnson said:
“You know, I enjoy seeing a team get better. That’s the joy of managing. The wins and losses are important but it’s just seeing all the players doing things they’re capable of doing. When that happens, that makes me feel good. It is a good feeling to know we’re back. It’s been a number of years.”