Washington Nationals’ Bryce Harper follows through on a double against the Baltimore Orioles in the first inning of a baseball game Sunday, July 12, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)
Washington Nationals’ Danny Espinosa (8) high-fives teammates in the dugout after scoring on a single by Michael Taylor in the second inning of an interleague baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles, Saturday, July 11, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
When fans hold massive expectations for their team, sometimes they over-analyze the issues that their team faces throughout a season. A case in point is the 2015 Washington Nationals.
A fan who knew what the expectations for the Nationals were coming into the season might look at the first half of the year with slight disappointment. Washington leads the National League East with a 48-39 record, but that doesn’t quite match the lofty World Series aspirations with which the Nationals were tagged back in April.
But considering the myriad injuries the team has faced across its lineup and pitching staff, the Nationals may actually be over performing.
Aside from Bryce Harper, the top story of the season so far for the Nationals has been the injury bug. The Nats still haven’t been able to field their full projected Opening Day roster, and it may not be possible this season. Injuries have rendered the services of Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon and reliever Craig Stammen all but worthless. Along with nagging injuries to Denard Span, Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister, Casey Janssen, and bench producers Reed Johnson and Nate McLouth, the team has had to rework the lineup on a daily basis. Yet, other players have stepped up in their absences.
Washington Nationals’ Yunel Escobar singles against the Baltimore Orioles in the fifth inning of a baseball game, Sunday, July 12, 2015, in Baltimore. The Nationals won 3-2. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)
Washington Nationals starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann throws to the Baltimore Orioles in the first inning of an interleague baseball game, Saturday, July 11, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
The offense has been fueled by the emergence of Michael Taylor in the outfield and Clint Robinson at first base, along with a bounce-back campaign from free agent acquisition Yunel Escobar. The rejuvenated Danny Espinosa has also contributed sterling defense, versatility and clutch hitting, and has been quite possibly the third-best player on the team this season.
Beyond all of this, however, one fact is undeniable: Bryce Harper has arrived.
Harper has become the once-in-a-generation talent he was proclaimed as being since high school. Harper has single-handedly carried the offense for most of the season, and is the runaway National League MVP at this point. In his first healthy campaign since his rookie season, Harper is second in the National League in homers with 26, and has a batting average of .339. He’s also fourth in the league in RBIs with 61, first in WAR (wins above replacement) at 6.2, and first in slugging percentage (.702). Those are Barry Bonds-level type numbers and he’s only 22 years old. He’s as locked in as any batter right now; it will be fun to see if he can keep up this torrid pace and add an MVP award to his mantle.
The Nationals’ rotation is, nevertheless, a work in progress, but trending upward. Ace pitcher Max Scherzer has been as good as advertised: he’s the best pitcher in the National League this season and has a no hitter under his belt. Jordan Zimmermann may have turned the corner on a sluggish start, but sub-par seasons from Fister, Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez are a bit discouraging. Rookie Joe Ross and others have shored up the ravaged staff and delivered when their turn in the rotation came up.
Manager Matt Williams deserves credit for keeping the playoffs within reach, and for juggling a lineup which includes everyday players such as Tyler Moore and the aforementioned Taylor and Robinson.
Washington will have its hands full coming out of the All-Star break. In a six-game homestand, the Nationals will take on the NL West-leading Los Angeles Dodgers in a three-game series, followed by a three-game set with the New York Mets, who trail Washington by just two games in the division.
The short-term goal for the Nationals will be to maintain their lead in the NL East. The long-term goal, however, will be to get healthy. By the time October comes, the team must be healthy enough to secure a playoff spot and make the deep run Washington fans envisioned at the start of the season.