The Nationals have won four of five games, getting their record back to 18-18 with a chance to sweep the Atlanta Braves tonight and come home with a winning record.
It's worth noting, though, that this surge comes around the same time the Nationals hit their peak last year; they beat the Rockies 14-6 in their 35th game of the season, improving their record to 20-15. And after they got rained out on May 14, they got swept in a doubleheader on May 15, starting their slide to a 69-93 record at the end of the season.
But how comparable is last year's team to this year's group? Not very, as it turns out. The stats would show that the Nationals' pitching-and-defense approach is playing out exactly like many thought it would. And if the offense can make up for the sizable dropoff so far this year, the Nationals would seem to have better days still ahead.
The Nationals weren't exactly an offensive juggernaut last year, but they were significantly better through 36 games in 2010 than they have been in 2011. Here are the team's numbers through 36 games each year:
2010: .263/.339/.428, 34 HR, 158 RBI, 160 R, 73 2B, 12 3B, 29 SB, 16 CS, 257 LOB
2011: .225/.297/.345, 27 HR, 130 RBI, 135 R, 48 2B, 6 3B, 31 SB, 10 CS, 227 LOB
This Nationals team has been far worse at the plate, but more efficient and aggressive running the bases. But are they 73 OPS points worse than last year's team? Probably not. This team is playing without Ryan Zimmerman, and probably has a hot streak ahead of it (it's scored seven runs apiece in the last two games).
This group, though, has pitched and played defense much more effectively than last year's team. A look at the stats:
2010: 321 1/3 IP, 333 H, 172 R, 163 ER, 143 BB, 212 K, 36 HR, 4.57 ERA, 45% inherited runners scoring
2011: 322 1/3 IP, 312 H, 149 R, 133 ER, 109 BB, 223 K, 23 HR, 3.81 ERA, 38% inherited runners scoring
It's surprising to me that the Nationals have actually struck out more batters this year than they did last year, with all of their emphasis on pitching to contact. But Jason Marquis' improved changeup has helped him strike out 29 batters in his first seven starts, which has him tied for the team lead with Tom Gorzelanny. And even as well as Matt Capps and Tyler Clippard started last year, the Nationals still had Brian Bruney in their bullpen; they haven't had the same kind of bullpen implosions this year.
They've also had several pitchers - Marquis and Gorzelanny, most notably - who could be pitching over their heads and are due for a regression. Marquis is almost a full run better than his career ERA, while Gorzelanny is 1.69 runs better than his career ERA. But even if both of those pitchers come back to their career numbers, the Nationals have some room to handle it; Livan Hernandez's 4.29 ERA is close to his career average (4.39), John Lannan has some room for improvement (he's .64 runs below his average) and the team hopes Jordan Zimmermann continues to get better. In short, if the pitching staff slips and the offense rebounds to where it should be, the Nationals probably have the mix to play respectable baseball.
I picked them to win 74 games before the season, and I still feel confident with that pick. They've scored fewer runs, but they're also playing cleaner games, and that recipe is less susceptible to slumps than a team that tries to win games 6-5 every night.