The Orioles were coming off their fourth straight last-place finish in 2011, while the Nationals franchise had not finished above .500 since 2003, when they were still playing in Montreal.
Washington was generating some buzz because of the return of Stephen Strasburg from Tommy John surgery and the potential debut of Bryce Harper, the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft. But back in April, it was not at all obvious that Strasburg would revert to the Cy Young form he flashed during 12 starts in 2010 or that Harper would be having an impact in the majors by the end of the month.
With the Red Sox having just concluded a series against the Orioles and set to kick off interleague play against Strasburg and the Nationals Friday night, it’s as a good time as any to project how the two Maryland ballclubs will fare for the rest of the season. So which of these division-leading teams has the best chance to parlay its hot start into a playoff berth?
The natural answer would seem to be the Nationals. The Phillies, the presumptive favorite in the NL East, have struggled all season due in part to some horrible injury luck. Neither Chase Utley nor Ryan Howard has played a single game this year, and staff ace Roy Halladay is likely out for at least a month with a shoulder injury. Philadelphia’s problems have opened the door for someone else to win that division for the first time since 2006, and Washington has taken full advantage behind the majors’ best pitching staff. The Nationals’ 2.97 team ERA is far and away the best in baseball, and, if it stood for the entire season, would be the lowest in the majors for 23 years. Strasburg has been fantastic, with a 2.35 ERA to go with 79 strikeouts in 65 innings, but he hasn’t even been the best pitcher on his own team, as Gio Gonzalez has struck out 84 batters in 66 1/3 innings in posting a team-low 2.31 ERA.
The biggest obstacle that the Nationals face on their road to the postseason is their lack of offense, which has the potential to doom Washington down the stretch. The Nats rank 26th in the majors in runs scored, barely ahead of the Cubs and Padres, the two teams with the worst records in MLB. Michael Morse’s return to the lineup should help that cause, but the Nationals currently lack a .300 hitter or a double-digit homer man, a troubling fact in the second week of June.
Still, if Strasburg, Gonzalez and fellow starters Edwin Jackson and Jordan Zimmermann can remain effective and, most importantly, healthy, Washington has a good chance to secure a playoff berth, especially with an extra wild card spot now available.
The Orioles, on the other hand, face a much tougher task as they play in the toughest division in baseball — and perhaps all of professional sports. All five teams in AL East are above .500, and of the nine teams that won 90 games or more last season, three of them reside in the Orioles’ division. Baltimore has thrived on the long ball so far in 2012, ranking third in the majors — and, perhaps tellingly, third in the division — in home runs with 78 through 56 games. The Orioles have been led by Adam Jones, who has posted a .307 batting average to go with 16 home runs, as well as a dominant bullpen fronted by Pedro Strop, Darren O’Day and closer Jim Johnson.
However, in a division full of explosive offenses, the Orioles’ lack of depth in their starting rotation will ultimately be their undoing. Wei-Yin Chen and Jason Hammel have surprised to form a solid 1-2 punch, but it gets ugly behind them, as Jake Arrieta and Tommy Hunter both boast ERAs above 5.50, while the team’s other starter, Brian Matusz, has a worse WHIP than either of them at 1.45. If they played in a different division, Baltimore may be able to win for an entire season by outscoring teams. But just ask the Sox how hard it is to win in the AL East without a solid fourth or fifth starter.
When it comes down to it, the Nationals appear better suited to make the playoffs based on their superior pitching staff and weaker division. Buck Showalter has a history of turning teams around, but for him to do so with essentially the same Orioles team that finished last in the division for the past four years would surely be his toughest task.
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