Nats' accomplishments shouldn't be diminished
In time of parity, NL East champions have sights set on winning World Series
ATLANTA -- People who asked which season was the fluke, the aberration, for the Washington Nationals, 2012 or '13, received a very compelling answer in '14.
On Tuesday night, the Nationals became the first National League team to clinch a division title in 2014 with a 3-0 win over the Braves. The Nats reached this lofty status on merit. This season is looking a lot more like '12 than '13.
The Nationals led the NL in victories in 2012 with 98. They slumped to 86 victories in '13, finishing second, by 10 games, to the Braves in the NL East. This year, the Nats are on pace for 94 victories, and at this moment, they have the league's best record.
The Nationals are back on top. Two division titles in three seasons, in this time of parity, should not be scoffed at, diminished or in any way belittled.
Left fielder Bryce Harper has retained the enthusiasm of youth. What is next for the Nats?
"Winning the World Series, it's what we want to do," said the 21-year-old Harper, "but we're going to take it one game at a time. We're going to enjoy ourselves tonight, but then we're going to go for the best record in the National League, of course."
Of course. Tuesday night's victory that clinched the NL East for the Nationals was fitting in more ways than one. The win eliminated the Braves, the defending NL East champs.
And it was fitting that the Nationals won behind Tanner Roark, the least experienced of their starters. Roark may be technically the Nats' fifth starter, but he's good enough that on a less talented staff, he'd be a No. 2, at worst a No. 3.
If in real estate, the three key words are location, location, location, in this game, the three key words are pitching, pitching, pitching. This club has it, leading the NL in team ERA.
When Nationals manager Matt Williams was going through the interview process for Washington's managerial position, he could not help but notice the pitching, in both quality and quantity, that the franchise had assembled.
"You look at this team and you see that there are special parts of it all the way around," Williams said, "but the most special part of it is that it has been built for pitching. One of the areas that we wanted was to be efficient defensively, to be efficient on the basepaths and to provide opportunity for the offensive players on our club to drive guys in.
"But it all starts with pitching. The guys who take that ball to the hill to start the game, that's where it all starts. For me, looking at it from afar, that was the most impressive part of it. There are some really good offensive players here, but those guys that toe the rubber every night, that's really good."
That pitching is so good that the real difficulty for the Nats in the postseason may be removing one pitcher from the rotation to go with the standard four-man playoff rotation. Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Roark; you wouldn't want any of them removed from the rotation. But somebody is going to turn into a very good long man in the bullpen.
Other clubs search all season for adequate starters and some clubs never solve this particular mystery. The Nationals are at the other end of spectrum. They have the closest thing to a pitching surplus as any team can have.
With a core of relatively young starting pitchers, there should not be an end in sight for the Nats and their winning ways. They should be in good shape for years to come.
But more immediate issues beckon. The next race, as Harper noted, is for the best record in the NL and thus, home-field advantage through an NL Division Series and the NL Championship Series.
The opposition will be formidable. Everybody knows how well the Cardinals' pitchers performed on the way to the World Series last year. The Dodgers have the imposing duo of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke atop their rotation. The Giants' pitching has picked up, and you know what that club does in even-numbered years.
But taken as a group, it is difficult, if not impossible, to find a better staff than the one the Washington Nationals have. That is the leading reason that with two weeks left in September, the Nats are already division champions.