If you managed to stay awake for the ending of the Nationals game against the San Francisco Giants on Friday night, then you got to see a little piece of Major League Baseball history, and a fairly large piece of Washington Nationals history.
Given where the market was expected to go, few could have foreseen the price the Washington Nationals paid to acquire Mark Melancon. In exchange for the three-time All-Star, the Nationals sent the Pittsburgh Pirates a major-league reliever in Felipe Rivero and a solid, but unheralded prospect in Taylor Hearn, a package much smaller in terms of quantity and quality than many expected.
I came prepared. I was prepared to hear Twitter and the blog brigade blasting out 140-character epitaphs on how the Washington Nationals cannot win against good teams and are especially bad against good pitching. Typical Washington sports team that can only win when it doesn’t matter. But when the competition gets fierce they fold like a cheap tent. And don’t even get me started on the Nats against good pitching. When is the last time the Nats did anything against good teams?
Fortunately, the first two games against the San Francisco Giants were wins. Otherwise, I might have needed a break from Twitter for a while. But do the loud voices have a point? Let’s look at the data so far from this year.
First, the Nationals are a pretty good team overall, and they got that way by beating up on the bad teams and holding their own against good teams. That is how everyone does it, and the Nats are no exception. This year, the Nationals are .545 against teams with a winning record. That puts them fourth behind the Texas Rangers at the top (with an absurd .672 record against winning teams) and solidly head of the middle-of-the-pack Colorado Rockies at .464.
Beating up the bad teams is also not a problem for this club. The Nats are .638 against teams below .500, and that runs sixth behind the St. Louis Cardinals leading the way with a .694 record. When you club wins three out of five against bad teams, it can seem calamitous when they can only muster splits against good teams. That is what happens when you are used to winning, but the enemy gets a vote. And it is exceptionally hard to win in this league against good teams.
That is only one half of the equation. To be the best you have to beat good pitching, especially in the playoffs. When you face the triple threat of Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto, and Jeff Samardzija in a seven-game series, you better be able to win some of those games if you want a ring. Fortunately for the Nationals, they have been able to do that this year.
I took a look at the games when the Nats faced a top-20 pitcher (according to FanGraphs’ WAR rankings) and it turns out they did okay. Out of the 14 games sampled, the Nats went 6-5 and in three games the opposing pitcher received a no decision because the Nationals were leading or tied going into the latter innings but their bullpen managed to lose the game. For a small sample size, that is right where you want to be. Couple that with the good record against teams with a winning record, and I like this club’s odds when it comes to winning a seven-game series.
So don’t fret if this team drops the next few against the Giants; winning four out of seven is right where you want to be.
This week, the Nats off-field endeavors attempted to quell the stress that is once again beginning to associate itself with the late innings. Tanner Roark, Bob Carpenter and Shawn Kelley read to kids at a local library, Ben Revere was on a mission to catch a circulating virus, and all the Harpers in America came together to create the cutest, Nats-jersey based video of all time.
The Nationals lost Tuesday night. Hold your vitriol for a moment, though, there is at least one positive to take out of the game. Before getting to the positive, let’s start with a few caveats. “Optimal” batting orders can mean something like 10-20 extra runs per season, one to two wins at best. The Nationals are on the road against the Indians, meaning the pitcher doesn’t hit and the Nationals get some extra lineup flexibility with a DH in the lineup. Finally, Dusty won’t commit to Tuesday night’s lineup long term.
But man, I loved the Tuesday night lineup. Here is why, on a position-by-position review:
Despite Daniel Murphy and Jayson Werth both hitting home runs and Tanner Roark going on the mound, the Nationals fell to the San Diego Padres on Friday night. Roark had not given up a home run in 32 consecutive innings but chose Friday to make up some ground on his total for the season. Matt Kemp hammered two home runs off of the Nats’ starter, who lasted only five innings. In contrast, his counterpart Luis Perdomo lasted a career-high seven innings.
Twitter was briefly set afire today by ex-Nat Mark DeRosa’s suggestion on Twitter that the Nationals give up a king’s ransom in young talent for a pair of controllable and talented White Sox in their prime.
The first games after the All Star break are the equivalent of jumping into a pool after spending all day in the scorching sun. The feeling is amplified by a series win, and even more so when it’s accompanied by a flurry off-field fun:
The trade deadline is approaching. #Sources are going to be trending on Twitter soon. Jon Heyman knock-off Twitter handles are primed to break fake news stories. The hot stove hasn’t really gotten going yet, but already the Nationals have been named as potential suitors for a whole host of players. As a team in the playoff hunt, it’s natural for people to speculate about what upgrades Mike Rizzo might make to his roster. But the Nationals are a first-place team, so where exactly could Rizzo try to improve the ball club?
Much speculation has swirled around the Nationals potentially acquiring a reliever to beef up the back end of their bullpen. They are frequently named as a suitor for the Yankees’ pair of fireballing lefties: Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller. The list doesn’t end there, with Sean Doolittle, Fernando Abad, Jeremy Jeffress, and Alex Colome as members of a very deep group. Suffice it to say, there are quite a few ways the trade deadline could go.