It’s difficult to explain all the ways this Nationals team is playing like the antithesis of the two squads that came before it. On Wednesday afternoon, there were plenty of stats at the disposal of anyone who wanted to try.
After a 3-2 win over the Chicago Cubs on Wednesday afternoon, the numbers and superlatives had a breathless quality to them as they came flying off Twitter. The victory pushed the Nationals’ record to 12-10, guaranteeing their first winning month since Sept. 2007. They eclipsed the 2005 team for the best 22-game start in Nationals history. Matt Capps saved his 10th game in 10 tries; it was June before Washington had 10 saves last year.
But the most pertinent stat, the one that explains the Nationals’ success better than any other, was this: For the first time since August 2005, they have allowed four runs or less in eight straight games.
There’s no simpler, more direct explanation for this team’s sudden turnaround than that, and at once, no more startling development. The Nationals, who ranked last in the National League in most pitching and defense metrics last season, are now winning because of those two things.
They’re getting admirable pitching performances from Luis Atilano, who won for the second time in as many major-league starts on Wednesday, to Livan Hernandez, who has an 0.87 ERA in four starts.
They’re sixth in the National League in fielding efficiency, after leading the NL in errors the last two years, and fourth in the NL in Ultimate Zone Rating, having taken away 3.6 runs through Tuesday with a defense engineered to preserve late leads.
The Nationals have a bench full of rangy outfielders with good instincts and better arms, infielders that can switch spots as needed and a backup catcher, Wil Nieves, who’s made a living off his glove for the better part of seven seasons spent at the fringes of the major leagues.
A year after the Nationals lost nine times in a 10 game stretch where they scored five runs each night, they’re barely scoring, with Ryan Zimmerman out of the lineup, and still winning. It’s the prevention of runs that’s at the heart of this team’s m.o., and when the Nationals have Zimmerman coming back, Stephen Strasburg and Chien-Ming Wang on the way and the good graces of baseball’s offensive cycles eventually tilting in their favor, their surprising first month might not be a fluke.
“We’re just scoring enough runs right now,” first baseman Adam Dunn said. “As long as our pitching keeps us in it, we have a pretty good chance.”
Dunn, who homered for the fourth time this year on Wednesday, is just one of the upgrades on defense. He’s made only one error at first base, playing adequate defense at a position where he’d historically been just short of frightening. He’s become a big target with soft hands, stretching his 6-foot-7 frame on numerous occasions to scoop balls out of the dirt.
That’s not the only upgrade. Ian Desmond, who replaced Cristian Guzman at shortstop, adds a range and athleticism the Nationals haven’t had at the position. He chased down a ball deep in the hole at short, throwing out Kosuke Fukodome for the first out in the ninth.
In the outfield, the Nationals are able to flank Nyjer Morgan with any one of four above-average defenders, mixing and matching between Willie Harris, Willy Tavares, Justin Maxwell and Roger Bernadina. Even Josh Willingham has been impressive defensively; he leads the Nationals with a 2.3 UZR.
At some point, logic would suggest the Nationals’ pitchers will run into trouble. There’s not a dominant stopper on the five-man staff, and Atilano spent too much time nibbling around the fringes of the strike zone early today.
But their offense should improve when Zimmerman returns, and the pitching staff should get better once they add Strasburg and Wang. And the best part for the Nationals is, they don’t have to mash every night if they play defense this way.
“We’ve been playing OK,” infielder Adam Kennedy said. “Hopefully we can get Zim back in there and really get rolling.”