Cornerstones Harper, Strasburg eyeing World Series trip
By Terence Moore
Let's forget about the 2012 season, when the Washington Nationals saw their No. 1 picks in consecutive years mature in a flash and become franchise players for a generation.
Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper produced a two-fold phenomena four years ago: Not only did they help their franchise, which began in 1969 as the Montreal Expos, grab its first National League East title during a non-strike season, but they were huge in giving Washington its first trip to the postseason for a Major League team in 79 years.
The Nationals dropped the NL Divsion Series to the Cardinals.
Then came 2014. Let's definitely forget that season for the Nats. And, yes, I know they ended with the league's best record at 96-66. Those numbers also weren't flukes since they had pitching depth and impressive hitting, especially with Strasburg and Harper still growing and prospering. They captured the division by 17 games that time instead of by four, but they still caused sighing around the nation's capital after losing the NLDS to the Giants.
In contrast to other regular seasons for the Nationals, this one is threatening to evolve into a splendid postseason. They have the look (along with the pitching, the hitting and the essence of nearly everything else that comprises an elite team) of a gifted bunch that could go beyond just making the postseason. Think of the World Series, and now think of the Nats actually winning their last game.
I can't think of any issues for the Nationals.
"Yeah, we've been playing pretty well, but to be honest, our hitting has sort of been up and down," Nats center fielder Ben Revere told me the other day of a team that ranks 17th in the Majors with a .255 batting average. "I include myself in that category, because I've been coming off [an oblique injury that has led to his .216 batting average, 70 points below his career average]. We've had a few other guys in the lineup who have kind of been scuffling."
No question there. As a career .279 hitter, Ryan Zimmerman is in Revere territory with a .217 average. But who cares around the Potomac when rookie sensation Trea Turner is making up for slumping veterans by hitting .344 with a .902 OPS while making Revere a backup. The Nationals also have sluggers. Boy, do they. Anthony Rendon is four home runs away from joining Daniel Murphy (25), Harper (23), Danny Espinosa (20), Wilson Ramos (20) and Jayson Werth (20) and giving the Nats an NL-record six guys with 20 homers or more during a season.
Actually, seven is the Nationals' favorite number, because they rank seventh in the Majors in homers, runs scored and stolen bases. Or maybe two is the Nats' favorite number. So get used to hearing "Nationals" and "Cubs" in the same sentence for a moment. After all, regarding the number two or its equivalent, the Nats are second only to the Cubs in the big leagues in run differential, team ERA and opponents' batting average. Only the Dodgers make fewer errors than the Nationals (tied with the Tigers), and only the Dodgers have pitchers with more strikeouts overall.
In case you haven't guessed, the Nationals can pitch a little. Max Scherzer is in the vicinity of his second Cy Young Award with a 15-7 record, a 2.89 ERA and a Major League-leading 238 strikeouts. Strasburg was placed on the disabled list as a precautionary move to rest his tired elbow, but he'll return next week. Then there is Tanner Roark (14-7, 2.87 ERA), giving the Nats a Big Three in the rotation, with virtually unhittable Mark Melancon (37 saves, 1.30 ERA) using his cut fastballs to close things from the bullpen.
Sounds like this is the best Nationals team since the franchise moved from Montreal to Washington before the 2005 season. When I mentioned as much to Harper the other day inside of the visitors' clubhouse at Turner Field in Atlanta, he responded like many of his teammates: He nodded, and then he pointed to the perennially open door of the manager's office.
"It all starts with that man over there, sitting in his chair," Harper said, referring to Dusty Baker in his first year with the Nats and his 21st overall as a Major League manager. After running the Giants, the Cubs and the Reds during his previous stops, Baker has three NL Manager of the Year Awards, seven trips to the postseason and an NL pennant.
Among other things, Baker is noted for bringing dormant franchises back to life. During his first year with the Giants, they went from 72-90 to 103-59. The Cubs hadn't won their division in 15 years until Baker's North Siders did as much, and he also took the Reds to their first postseason trip in 15 years. So it isn't surprising that the Nationals have followed their mediocre finish last year of 83-79 with a steadily rising 78-55 mark. They enter their weekend series on the road against the second-place Mets ahead by 9 1/2 games.
To hear Harper and others tell, everything good about these Nats goes back to Baker, who specializes in keeping his players calm and confident with his easy personality and dangling toothpick.
"Having a guy like Dusty, who really brings that mentality here that you should have fun and enjoy the game, this all starts from him," Harper said. "We take advantage of that. We talk to him about anything we're going through, because we enjoy having him around. He's like that cool grandpa that you want to talk baseball with and that you just want to hang out with."
What Baker wants more than anything else in baseball is what he often says was his primary motivation for seeking another chance to run a team during his two-year layoff from the game: He wants his first World Series ring as a manager, and you know what?
With this Nationals team, well, why not?
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.