The two best words for baseball fans in September are “magic number”—the number of wins by a team leading their division, or losses by their rivals, needed for that team to clinch their division.

Washington Nationals Trea Turner (7) scores at home plate on Bryce Harper’s sacrifice fly ahead of the throw to New York Mets catcher Rene Rivera in the first inning of a baseball game, Friday, Sept. 2, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

For Washington Nationals fans, the “magic number” countdown to clinch the National League East pennant has become an annual cause for celebration. From social media posts to excited fans across the area, the tone of this countdown has changed from an unbelievable sense of accomplishment and euphoria in 2012 to the validity of being a real-deal major league powerhouse by 2014. The week of Sept. 4 included a three-game sweep over the Philadelphia Phillies and a victory over the second-place New York Mets, setting the magic number at 18.

The Nationals’ path to this point is quite amazing if you look at the full picture. During the second half of the season, the team has seen stellar efforts from young guys who weren’t expected to make a difference this season, along with production from wily veterans and the return of the MVP.  

Shortstop-turned-centerfielder Trae Turner has been a godsend for the lineup.  His reckless abandon on the base paths, solid defense and surprising power culminated in August when he was named the Rookie of the Month.  In 28 August games, Turner had a .357 batting average with five home runs, 15 RBIs and 11 stolen bases. He also had a .366 on-base percentage and .571 slugging percentage.  The 45 hits he collected in August were two shy of the Nationals/Expos franchise record, held jointly by Daniel Murphy (May 2016), Al Oliver (August 1982) and Marquis Grissom (June 1994). The Rookie of the Month honor was the first monthly award of any kind for Turner, and was just the fourth Rookie of the Month award bestowed upon a Nationals player in team history. Turner joins Bryce Harper (May and September-October 2012) and Ryan Church (May 2005) as the only Nationals rookies to take home the honor.

Washington Nationals’ Anthony Rendon hits a two-run single off New York Mets relief pitcher Hansel Robles in the ninth inning of a baseball game, Friday, Sept. 2, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

One of the wily veterans who has quietly gotten the job done since the All Star break has been the oft-maligned Gio Gonzales. Since the All-Star Break he has pitched to a 3.00 ERA, and held opposing batters to a .209 average. He has gone 5-1, turning a disappointing 5-8 record to a respectable 10-9. More importantly, he has been available to pitch when starters Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross have missed considerable time in the rotation.

With two pitchers out of their rotation, the Nationals have given chances to their young arms in the minor league system. While Reynaldo Lopez and Lucas Giolito have the accolades and are rated higher by the powers that be, the forgotten A.J. Cole has taken the opportunity and run with it.  In his three starts, he has pitched well enough to win and—more importantly—give the overworked bullpen a rest.  Against the Mets in New York on Sept. 2, Cole gave up one run and three hits while striking out five in six innings to record his first Major League win.  

Finally, the Bryce Harper we all have grown to love has seemed to return at the right time for an extended postseason run. Since returning Aug. 14 from a neck injury that cost him five games, the reigning MVP is hitting a robust .347. He’s hit safely in 15 of 19 games and reached base safely in 18 of 19 over that stretch, posting a .429 on-base percentage, a .625 slugging percentage, nine doubles, a triple, three home runs, 11 walks and 16 runs scored.  If his power returns along with the averages, look out world!

As the team gets healthier, with Strasburg and Ross very close to returning, and with the resurgence of the aforementioned players, the Nationals are in prime position to make some real noise in October. So enjoy the daily countdown of the magic number—it’s well deserved.

Dion Johnson

Special to the AFRO