The Washington Nationals have won their last five games to crawl within four games of the ever-elusive .500 mark at 32-36. That, naturally, has lots of folks, including some of the players, thinking this team could contend for the wildcard in the National League this season, citing the strong starting pitching, much improved defense, and over the last two games, a newly-found offensive game, spurred by the return of the Face of the Franchise.
Is that thinking realistic?
Even taking the last two day's stats into consideration, the Nats are second to last in batting average, second-to-last in on-base percentage, and third-to-last in slugging over the course of the entire season. What do you want to believe: the first 66 games of this season, where the Nats couldn't hit their way out of a wet paper bag; or the last two days, where the Nats have banged out 28 hits and 18 runs?
Michael Morse is enjoying his career year. It's not shocking, as this is the first time he's had a chance to play everyday and he's still in the prime of his athletic career. And he's really pounding the ball. Since taking over as the primary first baseman, he's hitting .370/.426/.783 in 101 plate appearances. These aren't mortal numbers though, they're Barry Bonds in 2002 numbers. This is the very definition of "hot streak".
He's also hitting about 70 points higher than his career BABiP. Morse has walked just six times in that stretch and is 4.9 percent for the season, well below league average. When the BABiP normalizes, so will his OBP. But there's no doubt the power is impressive while he's on this streak.
Adam Kilgore at Nats Journal today took a look at the Nats run differential and theorized that the Nats "might be good enough to at least fool you for a little" that they could contend. According to their projected record based on that differential, the Nats could be playing .500 baseball. What Kilgore didn't mention in the piece -- and what the differential can't explain -- is that the Nats are +22 in just two games, the 17-5 game against the Orioles and last night's 10-0 romp over the Cardinals. Take out that +22, and we get right back to thinking the Nats are a 70-72 win team, instead of the illusion that they could contend.
It's human nature to cling to the positive and hope for the best. But as Harper over at Nationals Baseball stated in his post today, the Nats have allowed just 18 runs in their last 11 wins, an average of just 1.63 runs per game against. That's not just good pitching, it's unsustainably good pitching.
Over his last four starts, John Lannan has given up a total of two earned runs. Batters are hitting .172/.260/.258 against him. His BABiP against is a ridiculous .179. Do we really think Lannan can continue to make the rest of the National League hitters look like pitchers hitting against him? Not a knock against Lannan, but that's the very definition of unsustainable.
Same with Marquis. His last three starts, all wins, he's given up a total of three earned runs in 17 2/3 innings with a slash line of .222/.310/.365 and BABiP of .250. But I've stopped trying to figure Livo out. How can he give up six earned to the Padres and throw a three-hit shut out against the league's best-hitting team? Defies logic and statistics.
Jordan Zimmermann, however, looks like he's for real. He hasn't been lucky, just good. He's getting batters out pitching in the strike zone, which is the measure of an elite pitcher. If he can continue this and get just a few more swing-and-misses, NatsTown may very well have a pair of aces to play against the rest of the league next year.
Defensively, the Nats are on a very impressive run, 13-plus games without an error. But there's a reason why this period is now the franchise's record: Streaks like this (and it is a streak) just don't happen very often. The Nationals are much improved defensively across the board, and especially up the middle, where Desmond and Espinosa continue to impress on a nightly basis. But they aren't going to go the whole season without making another error.
I have to admit, the Nats surprised me on their west coast swing. In year's past, those long west coast trips have killed this team. Keeping with their "pitching and defense" mantra, they managed a winning multi-city road trip for the first time since 2008. It took them winning three in a row in the last three games of the trip by a combined score of 6-2 to get there, but they did all the same.
Then they come home and get the boost of their leader returning from a two-month stint on the disabled list and win two more games against a reeling Cardinals team that has now lost five in a row. It's great to see the Nats taking advantage in places where they used to crumble. But can we get to the all-star break before we start printing playoff tickets?
In 2010, the Nats had a stretch where they won seven out of ten and another where they took five out of seven. In 2009, they went 12-4 in late July-early August. They won seven in a row in a stretch in August 2008. And we all know how those seasons finished up. All I'm saying is that it's a long season. Be enthusiastic, cheer on the good baseball, hope for the future. Just try to be realistic when doing so.