On April 28, the Washington Nationals found themselves in last place in the mediocre National League East division. A team with all the talent in the world, but one that had underperformed and was five games below .500. On that night against the Braves, the Nationals fell behind by eight runs twice in the game before battling back and winning 13-12 to snap a six game losing streak. It was the first time in the team’s history that they won a game when giving up 11 runs and it was the franchise’s biggest deficit overcome ever.
A lot has changed since that historic win. Today, the Nationals are winners of eight of their last ten and have won six games in a row. They have the third best record in the National League and all of the talk of the team being a disappointment has been all but lost in Max Scherzer’s dominance on the mound, Bryce Harper’s torrid hot streak and many Nationals wins. However, for the Nationals, the best has still yet to come.
The Nationals’ 16-4 record since April 27 has been fueled by a number of things. The obvious answer is Bryce Harper. In the last 30 days, Harper has been by far the best hitter in baseball. Since April 24, Harper has the most runs batted in and home runs in all of baseball, along with the highest on base percentage and slugging percentage. His on base percentage has been a ridiculous .509 in that stretch, and Harper has bashed a whopping 10 home runs since May 6.
However magnificent Harper has been during this stretch, he is not the lone reason for the Nationals turnaround. Starting outfielders Denard Span and Jayson Werth were both injured at the beginning of the season but returned for the Nationals. Span and Werth had the two highest batting averages for the Nationals last season and the Nats struggled mightily to score runs early in the season without them.
Wilson Ramos has also been on fire throughout the month of May. He is hitting .321 this month and has proved that he can be one of the elite hitting catchers in all of baseball. The talented Ramos has been inconsistent throughout his career, partly because of several major injuries, however he finally seems to be turning in consistent performances at the plate.
Despite all of the success the team has found lately, the team has still yet to play their best baseball of the year. For one, the team has yet to play a game with their best player from last year: Anthony Rendon.
Rendon finished fifth in NL MVP voting last year but has been injured since spring training, and the Nationals have missed him both offensively and defensively. Rendon posted a Wins Above Replacement rating of 6.5 last year, tied for fourth in all of baseball. When you take away a player that adds that much value to a team it is certainly going to hurt. Rendon was one of the Nationals’ best fielders last year, committing just 15 errors. This year, without Rendon, the defense has made the seventh most errors in all of baseball. On offense, he was one of the team’s most consistent hitters and scored the third most runs in baseball. Rendon has already resumed baseball activities and with his return the Nationals will get back one of the brightest young stars in the game and take another step towards becoming the best team in the league.
Surprisingly, the Nationals have gone on this hot streak without the help of Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg, two of their best pitchers from last year. Gonzalez and Strasburg both have earned run averages above 4.90, something that I do not expect to continue. Last year, the two stud pitchers combined for 24 wins and both had earned run averages below 3.60. When both pitchers eventually round into form like I expect they will, the Nationals will be that much tougher to beat.
With Rendon still out and Jayson Werth and starting pitcher Doug Fister both landing on the disabled list recently, it may be a little longer until the Nationals have their full lineup healthy. However, with the strong play of the rest of the team, the Nationals should be able to continue their success even without their full lineup healthy. With so many pieces missing throughout the season and key players still underperforming, the Nationals still have not reached their full potential, and that is a scary thought for the rest of the league.