Dave Nichols: Nationals continue to look good a third of the way through the season

There’s an old adage in baseball that goes, you win 60 and lose 60, it’s what you do with the rest that makes or breaks you. While that’s not quite an even one-third split, we have reached that point in the season. With last night’s 5-3 win over the New York Mets, the Nats have played 54 games, exactly one-third of the season. Hey, I’m all for a little analysis using arbitrary end-points, so here goes.

The Nats are 32-22, first in the NL East by two games over the Braves and the Marlins. They own the second best record in the NL and for that matter, all of baseball. Since starting the season 14-4 (.777) they’ve gone 18-18. While that might not seem all that special, it’s been against tougher competition than at the start. Put it this way, for the Nats to hit 88 wins, which would realistically put them in playoff talks, they have to go 58-50 (.537) the rest of the way out.

Considering they’ve put this record together without Michael Morse so far, and with very little production from Ryan Zimmerman, it’s certainly within the realm of possibility. This team has enough pitching to last with anybody, but the offense has to pull its load. The team is currently 13th in the NL in runs per game, at 3.83, ahead of just the woeful Cubs, Padres and Pirates, none of whom would be confused with a playoff team. The Nats’ team batting average is still very low (.242, 13th), but their on-base percentage and slugging especially are climbing. That only will get better as Morse feels more comfortable at the plate and Zimmerman figures out his problem, be it slump or residual soreness in the shoulder he injured earlier this season.

One player that seems to have finally shaken his atrocious start is second baseman Danny Espinosa. Yes, he still strikes out way too much, but since hitting rock bottom May 3 (.182), Espinosa has been exactly what the Nats expect him to be. In his last 113 plate appearances, Espinosa is hitting .250/.330/.460 with four homers, seven doubles and 11 RBIs. Extrapolated over a full season, those are the numbers folks got real excited about in the first place. He slumped heavily at the end of last season, so maybe he got it out of the way early this year.

Of course, the pitching staff still leads the NL in fewest runs per game and is actually on a record pace for strikeouts, averaging 8.6 per nine innings, while being tied for fourth in the league in fewest walks per nine innings. It’s quite possible when they play the All-Star Game next month the Nats could have two starting pitchers (Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez) represent them. Wouldn’t that be something?

There is - obviously - a long way to go before we can print playoff tickets. But unlike dreaming on that 14-4 start, we’ve now got one-third of the season in the books. That’s enough to start wondering “what if?” What if they continue to win series after series? What if Strasburg and Gonzalez continue to trade the league lead in strikeouts every start? What if Morse picks up where he left off last season and they eventually get Jayson Werth back? What if Bryce Harper never looks like a 19-year old should in the major leagues? Yeah, what if?

Dave Nichols covers the Nationals for District Sports Page. Read Nichols’ Nationals observations as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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