Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Washington Nationals emerging as team to beat in National League

The Nats are kickin' tail right now.
Oh, how things can change in only a few weeks in baseball. Back on May 15, I posted a story about the National League in which I pointed out that there was no clear frontrunner to win the pennant. I focused mostly on the Atlanta Braves, St. Louis Cardinals, and Los Angeles Dodgers because they were leading their divisions and playing good baseball. Despite this, I left the door open because the season was still young and others could emerge. All three of those teams continue to do well, but two other teams have really kicked it into high gear.

The Washington Nationals currently have the best record in baseball (72-44) and are blossoming right before our eyes. After years of struggling since relocating from Montreal, they appear set to be a good team for several years. Through June and July, they played well, and I kept expecting them to fade. However, that has not happened (27-11 record since July 1) primarily because of excellent pitching led by Stephen Strasburg (13-5 record, 2.90 ERA, 166 strikeouts). Much has been made of the fact that the Nationals will likely shut him down once he hits the 160 innings pitched level. He had Tommy John surgery in late 2010 and the team does not want him pitching too much as he builds his elbow strength. He should hit that level in mid-September, which is near the end of the regular season. If the team continues on its current winning pace, it should have no problem securing a playoff berth (though his absence could be problematic after that). Still, the Nats are far from a one-man team. The pitching rotation is solid, and the team can score. The Braves remain hot on their heels (5.5 games behind) so the race for the Eastern Division crown should remain a tense one for weeks to come.
The other team emerging is the Cincinnati Reds. Despite losing their best player Joey Votto for several weeks, the team has been red hot since the all-star break. The Reds have one of the best bullpens in the National League, and if their starters can just get to the seventh inning with a lead, then the team is in the enviable position of having several fine relievers. The bullpen is anchored by closer Aroldis Chapman who brings it at 100 mph most nights. Right now, he has 28 saves and an ERA slightly above one. As Votto prepares to return, the offense will be getting a significant jolt just as we are entering the homestretch of the regular season. The Pirates and Cardinals are chasing the Reds in the Central Division, but it appears to be the Reds to lose at this point. Of course, a lot can still happen, but even with the Reds in control, the Pirates and Cardinals are in the thick of the race for the NL’s two wildcard berths.
In the Western Division, the San Francisco Giants and the Dodgers are slugging it out. The Giants have great starting pitching, while the Dodgers made several moves before the trade deadline to solidify their position. The Arizona Diamondbacks have made some noise about joining the race, but they get hot then fade.
The Nationals and Reds will be fun to watch as the season winds down. Can they hold it together? Maybe, but there is a lot of good baseball being played in the National League right now. At this point, the Nationals look like the strongest team. It is all coming together for them as we head down the homestretch.


Anonymous said...

Are you giving up on the Braves?

Chris said...

No, but I am giving up on the Giants. Melky Cabrera's 50-game suspension should torpedo their offense. The Dodgers should win the West.