Ted Leavengood: Nationals’ sun may be setting, but what a view

Five home runs in a 9-0 blowout, and still Gio Gonzalez completely stole the spotlight from Rick Schu’s offense. He flirted with history for six innings, taking a no-hitter into the bottom of the seventh. Then one got away. It was so close, so close to being corralled by Adam LaRoche, so close to being foul, but it was a hit. Gonzalez left the mound at the end of the inning muttering to himself, but he finished the game off as a one-hit complete-game shutout. Just that one cheap hit.

Gonzalez has won three games in a row. He has not pitched a gem like last night’s game since coming over from Oakland. He allowed only three baserunners. The win was his 10th in the 2013 season, less than half as many as last season. But for Gonzalez and the rest of the Nationals the indicators are starting to look bullish.

Schu’s offense had its own rather impressive night. Tyler Moore, Denard Span, Wilson Ramos, Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman all hit home runs. None of them were tape-measure shots like Ramos hit in Miami, but they counted all the same.

There have been many moments of frustration over the last few months, but the numbers are starting to tell a different story. The Washington offense has been scoring 4.71 runs per game since Schu was named hitting coach. That figure would rank second in the National League behind only the St. Louis Cardinals, who have managed 4.81 runs per game for the entire season.

Since losing three games in a row to the Braves early in the month of August, Washington has won 20 games and lost only nine -- better than two games in three. Yes, the competition has been from among the lower half of the National League for the most part, but earlier in the season the Nationals found ways to lose regardless the opponents.

There may still be some last vestige of hope for the playoffs lurking in the dark recesses. Pittsburgh beat Texas last night to snap out of its four-game losing streak, but Cincinnati lost to the Cubs. Washington would have to run the table and either the Pirates or Reds would have to fold. It is decidedly unlikely, but winning baseball generates its own optimism.

Regardless how the season plays out, Washington has found its mojo again. The Nats are finishing the season like the team that won 98 games last season. And there is more where that came from.

The Nationals offseason begins to loom large. There is a ton of good news. The number of pitching prospects knocking on the major league door is the best thing brewing since the signing of Strasburg and Harper. As things stand, there are no less than five legitimate candidates for the final two spots in the Nationals’ 2014 rotation. Rather than waste another dime on free agents like Edwin Jackson or Dan Haren, Washington can stage an open competition next spring between Ross Detwiler, Taylor Jordan, Tanner Roark, Ross Ohlendorf and Nathan Karns for the final two spots.

If the losers have to start the season at Triple-A Syracuse, they know they will get a shot. Entering the offseason, Washington would be well served to adopt the Tampa Bay approach. The Rays have kept all of their pitching prospects unless bowled over by offers to trade them.

A potential Syracuse rotation next season could include Caleb Clay, Ohlendorf, and Karns, any one of whom is capable of stepping in for an injured or ineffective starter in D.C. They could quickly be joined by other bright stars in the Washington firmament, such as A.J. Cole and Robbie Ray, who have sparkled for Double-A Harrisburg during the second half of the 2013 season and are pitching the Senators deep into the playoffs.

The sun may be setting on the 2013 season, but there is still a lot of baseball left in September, a lot of baseball in these Nationals for a long time to come.

Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released in June 2011. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. 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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