Every season, the normalcy of the regular season grind is halted for the All Star Game festivities. As a team, you want to come out of the break refreshed but, more importantly, pick up where you left off before the break and if you were playing really well, show no ill effects of the time off.
Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg (37) delivers a pitch during the sixth inning of a baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Friday, July 15, 2016, in Washington. The Nationals won 5-1. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
If the first two games after the break are a precursor of things to come, the Nationals should continue the excellent play we have seen lately. A five-game winning streak wrapped around the break has extended the lead in the division by a season-high seven games over the New York Mets and Miami Marlins.
During the streak, each starting pitcher in the rotation has done his job. Strasburg won both starts to elevate his record to 13-0. It is time to start mentioning Strasburg in the same class as the Dodgers’ ace Clayton Kershaw, the Giants’ ace Madison Bumgarner, the Cubs’ star Jake Arrieta or any other star pitcher in the major leagues. Strasburg has allowed a total of five hits in three starts since coming off the disabled list on July 3, giving up just one run in those starts. He is just the eighth pitcher in the history of the sport to start 13-0, the last, ironically, is current teammate Max Scherzer during his time as a member of the Detroit Tigers in 2013. Strasburg is now just two wins away from matching the best start since 1913 by a starting pitcher. In Thursday’s matchup against the Dodgers at Nationals Park, Strasburg will look to join the great Roger Clemens as one of just five starting pitchers to start 14-0.
Washington Nationals’ Danny Espinosa slides home to score during the seventh inning of a baseball game against Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Eric Fryer, left, Friday, July 15, 2016, in Washington. The Nationals won 5-1. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
One player that never seems to get credit for his outstanding contributions is starting pitcher Tanner Roark. He is the unsung hero of the team, bringing much needed stability to the back of the rotation. After a lengthy rain delay on July 16 against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Roark continued his knack for delivering extended quality starts under less than ideal circumstances. The game of baseball, more than anything, is a game of rhythm, and in four of Roark’s starts this season, there has been a rain delay. He has had to start a team-high 10 games and yet he continues to deliver game after game. His eight shutout innings in the 6-0 victory lowered his ERA to 2.82, which is now 11th in the league. He has 12 starts of seven-plus innings, which is the best record on the team. He also has thrown more innings than all but three NL pitchers (Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto, and Scherzer). After a surprisingly great season in 2014, he was replaced in the rotation after the acquisition of Scherzer and he could never get into the type of rhythm in 2015 as he is currently in. He seemed unsure of himself and bothered mentally by the “demotion” and fans wondered if he could revert to anything close to the form of 2014. He has become an unflappable force for the ball club, a guy who just goes out start-to-start giving you quality innings and keeping the team in the ballgame. What more can you ask from him?
With the trade deadline on the horizon, GM Mike Rizzo must look up and down his roster and see if there are any real areas of concern that need to be addressed. It might be wise to pick up another bullpen arm or two but not at the expense of overpaying for a possible rental. There have been rumblings that the Nationals could actually make a play for the Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Trout, which may be hard to believe. But, because of how stacked Washington’s farm system is with elite prospects, if he was indeed on the market, the Nationals would have a legitimate shot at acquiring arguably the best player on the planet.
Winning 13 of the last 17 games played has positioned the team well for the stretch run for the divisional crown and home-field advantage, but as we’ve seen before, records late in the season mean nothing. Playing well late in the year does. Washington fans hope that they continue to see these efforts from the Nationals deep into the season and in October when it matters most.