They haven't been in the postseason since 1981 (as the Montreal Expos) when they lost to the Dodgers in the NLCS. But looking at the way they have been playing thus far, the Washington Nationals could be serious contenders for a return to October baseball.
At first pitch on Saturday, the first place Nationals — as surprising as it may be — had the second best record in the majors only behind the NL West-leading Dodgers. This sudden success didn't just happen overnight. The front office, especially general manager Mike Rizzo, had to spend millions of dollars to improve the pitching staff.
They are a young team — a very young team. All-Star pitcher Gio Gonzalez, who was traded to Washington this offseason, is 26 years old. Stephen Strasburg, the number one overall pick in the 2009 draft, is 23. These are the two aces atop the rotation for the Nationals. They are both very talented and have been very impressive during performances against the Red Sox in this weekend's series.
That's just the pitching side of things. They have had some big names on their roster since they relocated to the nation’s capital in 2005. Alfonso Soriano, Livan Hernandez, Christian Guzman, Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham and Jayson Werth have all worn the red and white curly W jersey, but it's the new version of the Nationals that might lead them back to the postseason.
It's hard to find a shortstop with superstar offensive skills these days and most teams are settling for what they have, even if it isn't good. Washington has a very solid offensive and defensive shortstop in Ian Desmond. The 26-year-old is hitting .263 with eight home runs and 30 RBIs.
Shortstop is no easy position to play, but Desmond does an exceptional job and defense is essential to the team's success. Washington's .985 fielding percentage is third best in the NL and they have made highlight plays during the first two games of their set against the Red Sox. Most notably, Xavier Nady robbed Adrian Gonzalez of a home run in the third inning of Friday's game.
One cannot discuss the National's postseason hopes without mentioning teen outfield sensation Bryce Harper. The Las Vegas native has performed as expected, perhaps better, since his April 28 call-up from Triple-A Syracuse. Entering Saturday’s play, the 19-year-old is hitting .282 with six homers and 17 RBIs. He has been the talk of baseball on days and nights when no perfect games or no-hitters were thrown.
Harper may be one of baseball's more exciting players to watch, and if he can keep his average near the .300 mark and not get too over-confident — which he is known to do from time-to-time — he could be a key contributor to a potential playoff team.
Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman has led the team in almost every offensive category for the past few seasons and so far this season, he has performed far below expectations. He's hitting .251 with only three home runs. He has to be very unfamiliar with those numbers after being a near .300 hitter for most of his career and averaging nearly 25 homers. To secure a spot in the postseason, he has to contribute more to this team.
We'll just have to wait and see how they finish, but there is no reason to assume this club will fail again. If they can stay healthy and their young phenoms can play like veterans, they have a very legitimate shot at impressing the baseball world. Don't sleep on these guys. After all, they just sent the Red Sox back to the below .500 mark.
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