Another year, and another disappointment in the playoffs for the Washington Nationals.
When you have consecutive 100-loss seasons like the Washington Nationals did in 2008 and 2009, you don’t have to worry about taking deposits from season-ticket holders in regards to playoff tickets. The Nationals would have the first overall pick in the Major League Baseball Draft in two consecutive years. And in each of those years it was hard for the Nats to mess up their selections due to the prospects that were available. In 2009, the Nationals selected starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg after he regularly hit the 100mph mark on the radar. The following year would see the Nats select outfielder Bryce Harper who even the age of 16, was a poster boy for Sports Illustrated due to the fact that he was hitting 500-foot home runs with ease. The drafting of both Strasburg and Harper gave the Nationals some credibility as they didn’t have that much to build off of during their first few years in Washington D.C., but things have changed.
Since 2012, the Nationals have won a pair of National League Eastern Division Titles, but they have yet to win a playoff series which goes back to the team’s days as the Montreal Expos. However you can’t go that far in discussions about World Series contenders this year in Major League Baseball without mentioning the Nationals, and Strasburg, along with Harper are a big reason for it.
Strasburg has had to deal with his fair share of growing pains with the Nats. As a rookie in 2010, Strasburg went 5-3 with an earned run average of 2.91 and 92 strikeouts before he suffered an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. Strasburg would return late in the 2011 Major League Baseball season, and in five starts for the Nats, he would go 1-1 with an earned run average of 1.50. In 2012, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo stuck to his guns when he set and innings limit of 160 on Strasburg as he was coming back from Tommy John surgery. That year Strasburg went 15-6 with an earned run average of 3.16, to go along with 197 strikeouts in 159.1 innings pitched. Rizzo took some flack as the Nats could have used Strasburg in the National League Division Series where they were eliminated in five games by the St. Louis Cardinals.
Strasburg has remained as a solid pitcher for Washington, but it has been tough for him to live up to the immense hype around him until this year. In 13 starts for the Nationals in 2016, Strasburg is 10-0 with an earned run average of 3.03 as he has already struck out 110 batters and he is in the running to win the National League’s Cy Young Award.
But whereas Strasburg has simply gone about his business without that much fan fare, Harper entered Major League Baseball with guns blazing. From his first day with the Nationals, Harper has displayed a swagger about him that let’s everyone know that he is the real deal.
After breezing through the minor leagues, Harper was ready to make his debut with Washington in 2012. In 139 games that year for the Nats, Harper batted .270 with 22 home runs, 59 runs batted in, and 18 stolen bases as he was the easy choice to be named the National League Rookie of the Year. Harper would battle through injuries over the next two years, while he also had to deal with the comparisons to Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout as these two players made their respective debuts around the same time.
But Harper would quiet his critics last year when he had one best offensive seasons in the history of the Expos/Nationals. Harper batted .330 with 42 homers, and 99 runs batted in to become the first player in the history of the franchise to be named as the MVP of the National League. However Harper’s tremendous season wasn’t enough to get the Nationals back to the postseason as they had to watch the New York Mets win the NL East.
The underachievement of the Nationals in 2015 resulted in Matt Williams being fired as the team’s manager and he was replaced by Dusty Baker. Baker has been around the block in Major League Baseball as he has enjoyed a 19-year playing career that included being in the on-deck circle when Hank Aaron hit his 715th career home run to surpass Babe Ruth as MLB’s all-time home run king in 1974, while also being a key member of the Los Angeles Dodgers World Series Championship team in 1981. Baker has gone on to manage the San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs, and Cincinnati Reds prior to taking over in Washington. Baker’s 1,709 career managerial victories are currently 17th all-time. Baker also knows how to get the most out of his star players as he knows that he’ll need them in order to get to the postseason.
This season Harper is only batting .254, but he does have 13 home runs and 38 runs batted batted in to go along with an on-base percentage of .410 as he already drawn 13 intentional walks. Harper has had to deal with the intentional walks due to the fact that the Nationals don’t have a ton of talent around him; with the exception of second baseman Daniel Murphy who flirting with hitting .400 for the year. But Harper has shown that he can put the Nationals lineup on his back for lengthy periods of time, and you can expect one of those prolonged stretches before the season ends.
The Nats currently find themselves in first place in the National League East with a 4.5-game lead over the Mets. And unlike last year, Washington has a sense of urgency about them as they are not only looking to get to the playoffs, but to do some damage if and when they get there. But any chances that the Nationals have will come down to what Harper and Strasburg are going to be able to do.
Strasburg isn’t the only talented starting pitcher that the Nats have as they also have Max Scherzer, while Harper is a star that covets the spotlight, as aside from being a ball player, he is constantly plastered on television endorsing national brands such as Gatorade, Subway, and Under Armour. But the marriage between Strasburg, Harper, and the Nationals couldn’t have come at a better time for a franchise and city alike that needed star power, and they found a pair that is living up to the hype.