Can the Washington Nationals finally get past the first round of the playoffs — and can they even get there?by Jacob Benge October 1, 2019 1 comment
The Washington Nationals silenced the critics over their loss of Bryce Harper, securing a Wild Card spot and rebounding after a 24-33 start to their season.
The buzz surrounding the Washington Nationals franchise coming into the season was how they were going to fill the void left by star outfielder, Bryce Harper, who departed to division-rival Philadelphia. Signing left-handed pitcher Patrick Corbin was one way the Nationals answered this loss of talent, but the true testament would lie with results on the diamond.
It is safe to say that clinching a playoff spot against the Phillies, who were eliminated with a fitting loss to the Nats, put that buzz to bed. At least for this season.
Bryce Harper still has plenty of time left to prove that his signing with the Phillies was a better decision than staying in Washington. However, his former team will be playing postseason baseball beginning this Tuesday, and his current team won’t be.
What happened in the regular season?
At one point in 2019, the Nationals were 12 games under .500 and sat in fourth place in the National League East. They needed a spark if they wanted to turn their season around. The month of June was when the Nationals caught fire.
After going 11-14 in April and 12-17 in May, the Nationals pounded the win column in June, going 18-8. That month saw the Nationals post crucial sweeps over the Phillies and Marlins. The team finally got over the .500 hump on June 27, seeing their record reach 41-40.
Entering the All-Star break, the Nationals were in second place in their division alongside their 47-42 record. The team needed to strengthen their bullpen, prompting several trades at the trade deadline.
Washington acquired Roenias Elias and Hunter Strickland from Seattle, and they also traded for Daniel Hudson from Toronto. Hudson has been the crispest of those three relievers since the trades, pitching to a 1.50 ERA in 23 games, adding 21 strikeouts in 24 innings.
August was another month that saw the Nationals really take off from the rest of the National League. Despite not seeing any time in first place in their division, the Nationals kept their heads down and earned win after win, going 19-7 in August, better than their month of June.
Washington would clinch a playoff spot in late September, playing to a 17-11 record in the last month of the regular season. The Nationals did not let up after securing an October baseball berth. They are taking an eight-game winning streak into Tuesday’s National League Wild Card Game against Milwaukee, a streak during which they have outscored opponents 54-24.
Who are their key offensive performers?
Left fielder Juan Soto and third baseman Anthony Rendon have led the offense for the Nationals. They have been complemented by Trea Turner’s all-around offensive production and Victor Robles’s speed.
It is arguable as to who is more valuable in the lineup, left-handed-hitting Soto or Rendon, who is more of a complete hitter. Rendon and Soto both have 34 home runs, and Soto walked more, earning a total of 108 free passes. But his teammate finished with a .319 batting average and 126 RBI.
Rendon has really emerged as a National League MVP candidate. That is what makes re-signing him so crucial for this team. Losing a bat like his would have an impact, no doubt, and the Nats would then have to expect their other offensive players to step up.
Trea Turner also played well during the regular season. He would find ways on base, setting up players like Soto and Rendon to drive him in. Turner offers something more than those two: speed. His 35 stolen bases were second in the NL, only to Ronald Acuña, Jr.’s 37.
Who are their key pitching performers?
It is a true benefit when you have three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer on your staff, and he may not have been considered their best starting pitcher in the regular season.
Right-hander Stephen Strasburg really carried the load and pitched dominantly, having 251 strikeouts and walking only 56 in 209 innings of work. A true complement, southpaw Patrick Corbin nearly matched Strasburg, pitching to a lower ERA (Corbin’s 3.25 to Strasburg’s 3.32) and allowing four less earned runs.
This is by no means a knock on Scherzer, who battled through injuries and still outperformed most of the NL’s starters, pitching to a 2.92 ERA. To me, Scherzer is more of a gamer than the two mentioned above. It just seems that Max Scherzer can flip a switch in pregame, dial in a different level of focus and go out to the mound and battle the opposing batters.
The Nationals only saw one pitcher go the distance in 2019, so their bullpen picked up those starters in the other 161 games. Led by closer Sean Doolittle, other bullpen pieces include Fernando Rodney and Wander Suero, who pitched in the most games with 78. Doolittle converted 29 saves in 55 games finished, punching out 66 batters.
Washington will host the National League Wild Card Game come Tuesday. They have already announced that ace Max Scherzer will get the ball against the Milwaukee Brewers, who have said Brandon Woodruff will oppose him. The Crew is reeling after being swept by Colorado, including two consecutive late-inning losses. A Washington Wild Card win would lead the team into the NLDS against a 106-win Los Angeles Dodgers team.
That could set up a really fun NLDS. For Washington, it is going to test their stud hurlers. The team will face the task of advancing past the first round for the first time in team history. Shall the Dodgers lose, it will mean there will be a new representative for the NL in the World Series. It would also bring an end to a historic Dodgers season.
However, if the Nationals lose in the NLDS, the team will be forced to go back to the drawing board. What more could they do? They have three top-of-the-rotation starters in Scherzer, Corbin, and Strasburg. Their offense is bolstered by Turner, Soto, Robles, and Rendon. But that is where the Nationals will be tasked: keeping that core together.