The Nationals got on their biggest roll in 2011 when they feasted on Seattle, Baltimore and the Chicago White Sox in June. It was one of the many reasons that factor into how a season plays out: the strength of schedule.
The Nationals won 15 of their final 20 games to finish with at least 80 wins for the first time since 2005. Those two runs turned out to be crucial in the 80-81 finish. The Nats were able to post winning records of 17-10 in June and September.
Ironically, Washington was able to sweep the world champion St. Louis Cardinals in the middle of June during that season-long eight-game win streak.
But a theme that might have played a part in that run in June was the caliber of opponent, facing a pair of teams that had up-and-down seasons in the American League Central and West divisions.
Seattle had the worst record in its division at 67-95 and the Nationals swept them in three games. The White Sox were underwhelming at 79-83 in the Central, and Washington took two of three in Chicago.
Although the team was swept right back by the Los Angeles Angels, the Nationals had a lead in game one and barely were shut out 1-0 in the series finale.
They ended up splitting a home-and-home with the Baltimore Orioles, each team taking two out of three in their home parks.
But in 2012, the Nationals will have to play some more of the Orioles’ American League East neighbors, including the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays. All three won at least 90 games in 2011. Even the Toronto Blue Jays (81-81) had moments in 2011 where they shined.
The Nationals face a stretch in June 2012 when they take on the Red Sox (June 8-10 at Boston), go to Toronto (June 11-13) and then host the Yankees (June 15-17) and Tampa Bay (June 19-21). They finish the run of AL East teams with the familiar Orioles in Baltimore (June 22-24).
The Boston, Toronto, New York Yankees and Tampa Bay interleague matchups will be considerably more difficult than in 2011 when the Nationals got to play the likes of the Mariners and the White Sox.
If you check the Major League Baseball Relative Power Index, the Nationals had the 11th toughest strength of schedule at .502. It marks the fourth consecutive season the Nationals SOS has gotten more difficult: (2008, No. 21; 2009, No. 19; 2010, No. 14 2011, No. 11).
Now, compare the American League East SOS rankings for 2011, and you see the Orioles (No. 1), Blue Jays (No. 2), Red Sox (No. 7), Rays (No. 8) and Yankees (No. 9) are all in the top 10 in schedule difficulty.
The Nationals face all five of those teams in a challenging stretch in June that will test the mettle of this up-and-coming franchise. If they do break through next season with the likes of Stephen Strasburg and possibly Bryce Harper, no one can say they did it facing a cream puff slate.