The Washington Nationals were largely written off by the end of May, with a bloated payroll, a manager that looked overmatched, and slim-to-no hope at the playoffs.
They enter this weekend as the leaders of the crazy National League wildcard race, 2.5 games ahead of the Brewers, and 1.5 games clear of the Cubs and the second wildcard spot. They’ve done it while Max Scherzer has pitched just twice over the past 6-or-so weeks.
Not only did they start winning in June, but they started winning big. After posting a -26 run differential through May, Washington has since outscored opponents by 86 runs since then, climbing their way to the top of the jumbled NL wildcard picture and within 5.5 games of Atlanta for the NL East lead.
Anthony Rendon continues to make a case for being the most underrated third baseman (and overall players) in baseball, hitting .318/.400/.604 this year with 26 home runs, 30 doubles, and 92 runs driven in, just 2 off from the NL lead. Trea Turner has bounced back from a disappointing season to hit .293/.355/.484 with 11 home runs, 24 doubles, and 25 stolen bases in 31 attempts.
They’re even getting significant contributions from veterans who were previously thought to be done, including 35-year-old Howie Kendrick (.315/.366/.526 with 12 home runs and 17 doubles in 279 plate appearances) and old friend Gerardo Parra (.279/.331/.496 with 6 home runs and 8 doubles in 140 plate appearances).
Most impressive of all may be 20-year-old Juan Soto, who has avoided a sophomore slump by hitting .290/.404/.545 with 25 home runs, 18 doubles, 4 triples, and 11 steals in 12 tries this year.
It feels like the problem with the Nationals has always been the bullpen, though, and with the worst bullpen ERA in the majors at the time of the trade deadline, they tried their best to address it, acquiring Daniel Hudson, Roenis Elias and Hunter Strickland in separate deals. Elias went on the IL after one appearance, but Hudson (1 ER in 6.2 IP) and Strickland (1 ER in 5 IP) have helped stabilize things a little.
Considering how many teams are still in the thick of the NL wildcard race, it probably goes without saying that this is a pretty important late-August series, and a series win would go a long way of improving the Brewers’ playoff odds, while a series loss would not be a total dreamkiller.
Friday, August 16th - 6:05 p.m. CDT
Adrian Houser vs. Patrick Corbin
The Nationals surprised everyone by signing Corbin to a 6-year, $140 million contract despite their perceived strength in the rotation. It’s a ridiculously back-loaded contract, but the lefty has been a good addition this season, striking out 172 batters in 147.2 innings with a 3.41 ERA/3.35 FIP and putting up the best ERA+ of his career at 136.
Saturday, August 17th - 6:05 p.m. CDT
Jordan Lyles vs. TBD
Sunday, August 18th - 12:35 p.m. CDT
Chase Anderson vs. TBD
Anibal Sanchez would be on regular rest if he started Saturday, but the Nationals’ rotation for the weekend is TBD beyond Friday night’s game because Washington is anticipating Max Scherzer possibly coming off the Injured List.
Sanchez hasn’t been able to duplicate the improbable success he found last year in Atlanta, when he put up a 2.83 ERA after looking like he was on his way out of the league with a 6.41 ERA in 105.1 innings in 2017, but he’s still been a solid rotation piece for the Nats. He’d enter a start this weekend with a 3.75 ERA/4.35 FIP in 22 outings, having struck out 99 batters in 117.2 innings.
Scherzer, meanwhile, was in the middle of the best season of his career at age 34 -- which is saying something considering he may be the best right-handed pitcher of his generation with 3 Cy Young awards, five straight 250-strikeout seasons, and a 300-strikeout season last year. He had struck out 189 batters in 134.1 innings over 20 starts before landing on the IL with a back strain, with a career-low 2.41 ERA and 2.09 FIP, and a career-high ERA+ of 192 and 12.7 K/9.
(UPDATE: It doesn’t appear Scherzer will be activated this weekend)
Nats official notes now have Sanchez starting Saturday and Fedde on Sunday. So it doesn’t appear Scherzer will be activated this weekend, unless something changes.— Mark Zuckerman (@MarkZuckerman) August 16, 2019
The Brewers swept the Nationals in three games at Miller Park in early May, dropping Washington to 14-22 at the time. The Nationals would end up going 12-17 in May after starting the year 12-16 in March/April, leading to plenty of calls for manager Dave Martinez to be fired (a headline in the Washington Post on May 22nd: “Dave Martinez is a good man. But he probably shouldn’t be managing the Nationals.”).
After that, though, Washington went on an 18-8 run in June and have continued that success to their current high-water mark of 10 games over .500.
Player to Watch
While Rendon is the star, Soto is why the Nationals likely didn’t feel like they had to try too hard to keep Bryce Harper around.
It’s hard to overstate just how impressive Soto has been to start his career, as he’s already accumulated 7.1 fWAR before he’s legally able to buy a beer (he doesn’t turn 21 until October 25th).
We’ll see how high his WAR climbs by the end of the year, but he’s making a case that he’s better at this age than Harper ever was. Harper racked up 8.5 fWAR by the end of his age-20 season, but had a lower OPS in his age-20 year than Soto does now (.854 compared to .949) and a lower OPS+ than Soto does (133 compared to 139).
Harper was hyped from the day he debuted, but Soto has done it much more quietly, although part of that may be due to Ronald Acuna, Jr. putting up even better numbers at a young age in Atlanta. If/when Rendon leaves in free agency this winter, the Nationals will likely become Soto’s team in 2020.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs