ATLANTA - There are valid reasons to be concerned about the Nationals, most notably a bullpen that fewer than three weeks into the season has required a reshuffling of roles and a spate of minor injuries including the groin spasm suffered by Jayson Werth tonight.
This is not a perfect team.
Let’s not confuse a couple of problem areas, though, for a bad team. Or even a mediocre one. The Nationals are quite good, with a rotation that has been dynamite and a lineup that has proven it is capable of exploding on any given night.
As it did tonight during a 14-4 thumping of the Braves.
Throw out Jeremy Guthrie’s disastrous one-off start in Philadelphia, and the Nationals rotation owns a 2.38 ERA, best in the National League. Put all their batters together, and the Nats’ collective OPS is .810, best in the major leagues.
“We’ve got a lot of 2-3-4 hitters. Basically the whole lineup,” right-hander Joe Ross said. “There’s really no time to take a batter off, so to say. We put in a lot of good at-bats today. We had 20 hits, I think. That’s pretty hard to do.”
Yes, it is. The Nationals have done it only five times in their 12-plus years of existence, including tonight’s outpouring against a quality Atlanta pitching staff.
Even more rare? The two grand slams they hit (one by Bryce Harper, one by Ryan Zimmerman) to pace this offensive barrage. That’s a feat this team had not accomplished since July 27, 2009, when Josh Willingham did it all by himself at Miller Park in Milwaukee.
Harper and Zimmerman have been key contributors to the Nationals’ overall production early this season. The former has rediscovered his MVP form from 2015, batting a cool .404 with six homers, 18 RBIs, a .516 on-base percentage and 1.362 OPS. The latter has rediscovered his form from ... well, it’s been quite some time since he has displayed this form in more than spurts.
Zimmerman, who finished tonight’s game 3-for-5 with the grand slam and another deep fly ball to the warning track, owns a .380 batting average, four homers, 11 RBIs and a 1.146 OPS that ranks among the league leaders.
“If he stays healthy and does the things he can, he’s an All-Star player, a Gold Glove-caliber first baseman,” Harper said. “He’s somebody that we need every single day. Great seeing him do what he did tonight and what he’s been doing every single day for us. It’s a lot of fun watching him hit the baseball with authority to right-center. That’s huge.”
Also huge: Harper’s continued ownage of Julio Teheran, which reached new levels of ridiculousness in tonight’s win.
With two homers in two innings, capped by his grand slam in the top of the second, Harper is now 15-for-33 with seven home runs, three doubles, 17 RBIs and a 1.717 OPS in his career against the Braves ace.
“I don’t know,” Harper said when asked what it is about Teheran that brings out the best in him. “I just try to have good at-bats and try to get pitches over the plate that I can drive and not look at who I’m facing that day or what he’s going to do to me, or anything like that. Just trying to see a pitch and try to drive it as best I can, and hopefully good things will happen.”
Harper may not admit it, but everyone else with the Nationals knows his track record against Teheran.
“You know it, and he knows it,” manager Dusty Baker said. “You feel very confident. Bryce, like I’ve said many times, has no problem with confidence.”
“I think everyone has a guy that they do well off of, and everyone usually has a pitcher that they don’t like to face either,” Zimmerman said. “That’s just kind of how it works. But his numbers against him ... that’s the guy that he does well off of. Baseball’s funny like that.”
These days, it doesn’t necessarily matter who is on the mound when Harper steps to the plate. The same can almost be said for the entire Nationals lineup, which accomplished what it did tonight despite not having the services of Trea Turner (expected to return from his hamstring injury in the next few days) or Werth (who departed in the middle of his third-inning at-bat after feeling a tug in his groin during a checked swing).
Baker characterized the ailment as a “groin spasm” and said Werth’s status was day-to-day. The 37-year-old left fielder said he has dealt with this issue before and has never required a DL stint for it, offering up some optimism that this isn’t anything significant.
“Came out more for precautionary reasons,” he said. “But I think it was the right decision. Don’t think I should have stayed in that much longer. But I’m thinking hopefully just a couple days, maybe. But we’ve got to see how I am tomorrow. And it’s something I’ve had in the past. Been able to manage it, so I’m hoping it’s nothing serious.”
These days, the Nationals’ ailments (both physical and mental) haven’t been particularly serious. They may have their share of issues, but they also own a 9-5 record, a 1 1/2-game lead in the National League East Division and all sorts of evidence they are among baseball’s most dangerous clubs.