At 68-43 with 479 runs scored and 396 runs allowed, the Nationals have played great baseball. But one of the best things the Nationals have done is take advantage of opportunities on their schedule. The Nationals started the season on the road against the Cubs, who were believed to be in rebuilding mode before the season began, and the Mets, who were projected to be a last-place club in the NL East. Starting against these two teams was viewed as an opportunity for the Nationals to get off to a hot start, and they responded by doing exactly that.
In those six games, the Nationals took advantage of the soft schedule and went 4-2, but that is only a part of the Nationals' hot start. After the six-game road trip, the Nationals came home for an 11-game homestand against the Reds, Astros, and Marlins. The last game against the Marlins ended up being rained out, but during the homestand, the Nationals went 8-2, building their season record to 12-4. It was a great start to the season, and it would set a pattern that has persisted.
When the Nationals were about to enter interleague play, it was viewed as their toughest stretch of the season due to the fact they were set to play the AL East, and while the Nationals went 2-7 against the top two teams in the AL East they went 8-1 against the bottom three. The Nationals' success against lesser teams caused them to end their toughest stretch of the season with a 10-8 record.
Since coming out of the All-Star break the Nationals have gone 19-9, bolstered by a stretch of 18 straight games against the under-.500 Mets, Brewers, Phillies, Marlins and Astros. In total, the Nationals have a .666 against teams that are currently under .500. The Nationals have done a good job in winning in the games they are supposed to and have taken advantage of soft spots in their schedule. That stretch ends this evening in Houston, but so far during it, the Nationals have gone 13-4. Once again, when presented with an opportunity to play lesser clubs, the Nationals have taken advantage.
It is important to note that a winning team like the Nationals should play well against teams with under-.500 records, but doing what should be done can be one of the more difficult aspects of sports. In total, against under-.500 teams the Nationals have hit .260/.322/.418 scoring 4.36 runs a game compared to .249/.314/.405 and 4.26 runs a game against over-.500 clubs. The Nats' pitchers have a 3.29 ERA, allowing 3.50 runs a game against under-.500 clubs compared to a 3.24 ERA and 3.64 runs allowed per game against over-.500 clubs. The Nats' pitching stats indicate that no matter who they play, runs will be tough to come by.
Playing better against the teams that should be beat is important for a winning team, but just as important is playing well against the teams that need to be beat. The Nationals are currently 29-17 against their own division. The Nats own a .630 winning percentage in their division, and it is winning percentages like that in division play that win divisions. The Nats have 27 remaining games against the NL East, which should not be viewed as a chance for other teams to catch the Nationals but as the chance for the Nationals to ice the division.
As important as those last 27 games against the NL East are, the dates to circle on the calendar are Aug. 30 through Sept. 9. It is over that 11-day period that the Nationals will play the Cardinals, Cubs, and Marlins at Nationals Park. A scheduled 11-game homestand helped the Nationals start the season hot, and it could be an 11=game homestand that helps them to close it out.
A winning season doesn't happen for teams that don't take advantage of their schedules. The Nationals' ability to defeat the teams they are supposed to and to play well in their own division has put them on pace for a high 90s wins total. If the Nationals end up winning the NL East, the way they took care of business against lesser clubs and stepped up in division play will have a lot to do with it.
David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals for Citizens of Natstown, and offers his viewpoints as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. 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.