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Don’t Sleep On the Nats

The so called “Big 3” in the league this year is the only thing keeping people from dubbing a World Series victor right now. The Astros, Dodgers, and Yankees all have legitimate claims to the “best team in the league” title, and have the records to prove it. In the latest World Series odds, the Astros are the AL favorites while the Dodgers are the top dog in the NL. While those 3 certainly make claims to be the teams nobody wants to face, the Nationals and their own big 3 have the makings of a playoff juggernaut.

The Nationals top 3 starters might be the best top 3 in the league.
The Nationals have a 3 headed monster at the top of their starting rotation | Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post

In the playoffs, good pitching trumps all. A 3 headed monster of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin leading the charge in a 7 game series would be devastating. You could find yourself down 3-0 in an eye blink, and still not find much rest in facing Anibal Sanchez and his 3.91 ERA. In terms of Fangraphs WAR, Scherzer, Strasburg, and Corbin rank 3rd (6.5), 8th (5.5), and 11th (4.9), respectively. In ERA, they rank 7th, 18th, and 10th. The only other team with even 2 pitchers in the top 11 for fWAR is the Astros, who have 3 if you count Zack Greinke. Barring the Astros and Greinke, the only other team with 3 pitchers in the top 18 of ERA is the Dodgers.

The Nationals’ offense is nothing to laugh about either. Although not in that upper echelon of offenses like the Astros or Yankees, the Nationals currently rank 10th in baseball with a team 102 wRC+. Although a fairly pedestrian number, the Nationals’ lineup has as much potential as any non Dodgers team in the NL. A 1-4 consisting of Trea Turner, Adam Eaton, Anthony Rendon, and Juan Soto is as lethal as it gets, and it’s only going to take a couple runs for the starting pitching to keep them in games. The Nats have scored at least 8 runs in 32 games this year; about 20% of their games, and 8 would be more than enough in most playoff games.

The biggest concern for the Nationals’ would be everything that comes after the starters. In terms of bullpens, the Nationals rank last in categories such as ERA (5.87) and strikeouts (479), while ranking 28th or 29th in other categories like WHIP (1.52), OPS (.815), and batting average against (.271). There always tends to be a much shorter leash in the playoffs for starters, as there is more of an inclination to win every game. The only problem is if the starters struggle, there’s no good stopper in that bullpen to get out of a jam. The Nationals have added names like Hunter Strickland, Daniel Hudson, and Roenis Elias among others, and only Hudson has proven to be a semi reliable arm. A standard game pitched by the Nationals can be likened to hit HBO series Game of Thrones, where the first 90% is phenomenal and the back 10% is a hasty putting together of thoughts you had at 2 in the morning and decided that was enough.

The only foreseeable bump in the road is having to play in the Wild Card game. The Nationals, having already clinched a postseason berth, will be facing the Brewers in the Wild Card game, barring a cataclysmic collapse from the Brewers, who have a magic number of 1 as of September 25. With the return of Brandon Woodruff, he appears to be the likely option to start the Wild Card game for Milwaukee, while Max Scherzer would be the likely choice for Washington. The Brewers offense is missing the production of reigning MVP Christian Yelich, and may find it difficult to score runs, although anything can happen in one game.

Even in the absence of Bryce Harper, the Nationals have found a way to somehow improve their team in almost every facet. The departure of Harper has led to an outfield manned by Juan Soto, Victor Robles, and Adam Eaton; a vast improvement defensively than what was experienced last year. The money not spent on Harper (he was offered an egregiously bad contract by the way, so I can’t fault him in the slightest for leaving) was used to buy a third ace in Patrick Corbin, who has followed up his breakout 2018 season with a stellar 2019. On paper, the Nats are every bit as good as they were in 2018, the only difference is that now they’re finally playing as they should.

Following the Wild Card game, the Nationals will be pitted against the #1 NL seed Dodgers in an attempt to win only their second playoff series in franchise history, with the first coming north of the border when the Montreal Expos defeated the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League Division Series. With Stephen Strasburg likely to start Game 1 opposite Walker Buehler, Game 2 will be followed by a likely Clayton Kershaw and Patrick Corbin matchup. While the Dodgers certainly have an edge because of their bullpen, Strasburg and Corbin are still two pitchers capable of shutting down any offense in the league. In 4 games started against the Dodgers as a member of the Diamondbacks in 2018, Corbin pitched 23.1 innings yielding only 2 earned runs, good for an ERA of 0.77.

2012, 2014, 2016, and 2017 all had one thing in common. The Nationals were division champs and failed to advance in the playoffs. Will 2019 be any different? For starters, they will be entering the playoffs as a wild card team for the first time ever, which brings a new dynamic as to how the postseason needs to be handled. Although the bullpen struggles mightily, the starting pitching may be good enough to hide them when necessary, and the offense is bound to explode at any time. This is the team that you can’t let get hot, because they’ll go on a run unlike any this franchise has ever seen if they do.

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Brian Schlosser

Rockies, Angels, and general baseball fan. I love talking about baseball more than I love writing about it, and I'm always open for discussion on Twitter @brian_slosh.

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