Nationals may finally have to scratch and claw for division title
The Capitals just treated us to a season like none they ever produced, creating a sense of expanded possibilities for Washington sports.
We don’t know where the Nationals will end up. But watching them proceed is tantalizing because, so far, they haven’t given us a season quite like this one either.
The Nats were terrible when they arrived 13 years ago, recording five fifth-place division finishes in their first seven seasons here. They were 16 games behind when they finished fourth (2007) and a whopping 21-1/2 games out when they took third (2011).
They haven’t been bad since then, with four NL East titles in the last six years. They entered this season as prohibitive favorites to win a third consecutive division crown, but it won’t mean much if another first-round exit follows.
That scenario has become way too common and the prospect still looms.
But nothing about the current route looks familiar yet.
Washington was in third place when it headed to Tampa following Sunday’s win against Philadelphia, three games behind the first-place Braves and Phillies. It’s an unusual spot at an unusual juncture; June 24 marks the latest Washington has been third since 2013.
We’re simply not used to the Nats scratching and clawing for a chance to reside atop the division.
This is awesome!
The championship seasons have been low on drama. Washington won the NL East by 20 games last year, eight games in 2016, 17 games in 2014 and four games in 2012. When they weren’t absolutely running away from the competition, the Nats closed with decent, not scintillating, September/October records: 17-12 in 2014 and 18-13 in 2012.
Likewise, the two also-ran campaigns failed to generate excitement or garner interest.
In 2015, the Nats fell from first place in August. They never drew closer than four games down the stretch and finished seven games behind the New York Mets. In 2013, the Nats were 15 games off the pace when September arrived and 10 games behind Atlanta when the season ended.
There’s still plenty of time for this season to morph into a laugher or a bitter pill.
But we also might experience a good, ol’ fashioned pennant race for the first time, a welcome change that hopefully would be a precursor of different playoff results.
Nearly midway through this campaign, Washington is scuffling along at 41-35, despite a slew of injuries that would’ve devastated other teams. And the Nats aren’t whole yet, still missing core elements of their lineup (Ryan Zimmerman and Matt Wieters), rotation (Stephen Strasburg and Jeremy Hellickson), bullpen (Brandon Kintzler) and bench (Matt Adams and Howie Kendrick). That’s not including recent extended absences for outfielder Adam Eaton and infielder Daniel Murphy, expected to help fill out one of the game’s deepest lineups.
Eaton has been back for 11 games and barely missed a beat, batting .308 batting with a .357 on-base percentage average as he eases toward everyday status. Murphy’s return from microfracture knee surgery has been a slower process. But he was 3-for-4 on Sunday and delivered the game-winning hit, a two-run single in the bottom of the eighth.
Here’s the kicker: The Phillies intentionally walked 19-year-old Juan Soto to load the bases and face Murphy instead. Really can’t blame manager Gabe Kapler for that decision, though, considering that Murphy was batting .135 and Soto is building a case for all-time Top 10 teen.
“You pick your poison right there,” Kapler told reporters afterward. “You have two very good hitters and the first one in Soto has been elite and Murphy has struggled a little bit. So we went after the guy who’s struggled and coming off injury.”
Bryce Harper is another guy who has struggled and he can’t blame it on a physical condition. Mired in a slump that dropped his average to .209 last week, he came to life Sunday with three doubles, a great time for a good sign.
Assuming the injured players return and no one replaces them on the disabled list, the Nats should be well-positioned to ward off the Braves and Phillies for the division title. If necessary, general manager Mike Rizzo can be counted on to swing a deal and fortify Washington’s chances.
Nevertheless, here’s hoping that the Nats are forced to fight their way to the end. That would beat what we’ve grown accustomed to the last six years, them either coasting to a title or going down with barely a whimper.
Yes, it’s time for something different in the postseason.
And an alternative path is a terrific way to start.
-- Brooklyn-born and Howard-educated, Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.