David Huzzard: How the Nationals can play catch-up

Coming off of a four-game winning streak the Nationals have dropped the first two in a four-game series to Philadelphia and there is nothing to worry about. But because it is D.C., people are going to worry. After this weekend, the Nationals suddenly found themselves only four games back from the Braves in the division, after the Braves lost two of three to the Phillies, and the Nationals swept the Padres. But then the Nationals played the Phillies while the Braves played the Marlins, and now the Nationals are right back to a six game deficit, and radio hosts who haven’t talked about the Nationals for a couple months started tweeting out how excited they are that football will be starting soon.

The Nationals are still very much in this thing and there is a distinct path that leads them to the playoffs. It may not lead them to the division title, but the Nats recent hot stretch hasn’t just moved them closer to the division crown, it moved them closer in the wild card race. While six games out of the division, the Nationals are only four games behind the Cincinnati Reds for the second wild card.

It should be pointed out at this time that it is still easier for the Nationals to catch the Braves than it is the Reds. Even though the Nationals are six games back of the Braves and four back of the Reds, the Nationals get to play the Braves while the season series with the Reds is done. In order for the Nationals to catch the Reds, they need help from other teams, while there is the possibility with the Braves that the Nationals can take care of that gap themselves.

What the Nationals need to do in order to catch one of these two teams is not worry about what they are doing when they aren’t playing them. The Nationals can’t control if the Braves beat the Marlins and the Braves can’t control how the Nats play against the Phillies. The Nats need to focus on taking care of their own business, and the goal should be to win 90 games. Before the second wild card was added, most teams that won 90 games made the playoffs. With the second wild card, the chances of making the playoffs with 90 wins are even higher. It isn’t going to be easy. The Nationals have 72 games left and in order to win 90 they have to go 44-28, a winning percentage of .611.

A team as talented as the Nationals is more than capable of playing .611 ball. They were expected to play even better than that over the course of an entire season back in spring training. Things haven’t gone as expected, but the talent is still there, and losing two in a row to the Phillies changes nothing. Even losing tonight to Cliff Lee doesn’t affect much. The Nats need to win 44 of their remaining 72, not 72 of the remaining 72. Even if they get to 90 wins, they are going to lose games.

As far as actually winning 90 games, the Nationals need to not do much different than what they have been doing for the past month. Since Anthony Rendon took over at second base on June 5 the Washington Nationals have scored 142 runs over 32 games or 4.44 runs a game. That pace would give them roughly 320 runs over their remaining 72, and if they prevent runs at their season pace of 3.94 runs allowed a game that gives them 284 runs allowed over their final 72. That gives the Nationals an expected winning percentage of .559 over the final 72 games which would put them at 86 wins on the season.

That means the Nationals have to figure out some other way to pick up four additional wins. It isn’t hard to figure where that improvement should come from. The Nationals are 33-20 when Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez or Jordan Zimmermann take the mound, and 13-24 when it is anyone else. With 44 starts left for the big three at their current pace, the Nats would win 27 of them. Meaning that in order to win the necessary 44 games to reach 90 wins, they would have to go 17-11 with the bottom of the rotation. The Nationals are 7-10 when Strasburg pitches and that should improve in the second half of the season, but that won’t be enough on its own. In order to win 90 games, the Nationals are going to have to improve the bottom of the rotation.

Ninety wins is still a very reachable goal for the Nationals. Over the last month, the offense has done what it has had to to get the Nationals back on track, and the top of the rotation has been good all season. The bottom of the rotation now needs to step it up, and it doesn’t even require a trade. If Dan Haren can be more of the pitcher Nationals fans saw Monday in Philadelphia and less of the one he was before going on the disabled list, and if Ross Detwiler can return from the DL and be the pitcher he was in the second half of last season, then that is all the improvement the Nationals need. But if Mike Rizzo doesn’t trust that can happen, the Nationals have 21 days left to work out a trade for a pitcher who can solidify the back end of the rotation.

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.

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