With the Washington Nationals closing in on their third NL East pennant in five seasons, team manager Dusty Baker has begun resting players where possible to get his team ready for the playoff gauntlet. By winning six of their last eight games, including two of three against the red-hot New York Mets, the Nationals are starting to look the part of a potential postseason power.
Washington Nationals shortstop Danny Espinosa, left, talks with Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker before a baseball game against the New York Mets at Nationals Park, Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
With starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg out for the foreseeable future, former afterthought-turned-front line starter Tanner Roark has more than made up for Strasburg’s absence with several solid efforts. In a 1-0 victory over the Mets on Sept. 14, Roark allowed three hits with seven strikeouts and four walks to clinch the series and all but end the New Yorkers hopes of winning the NL East. The performance also marked the league-best ninth time that Roark threw at least seven shutout innings. It didn’t seem possible that Roark would be able to replicate his breakout 2014 season, his first as a full-time starter. Two years later, after his reinsertion to the rotation, he’s somehow outdone himself. The victory over the Mets earned Roark his 15th win of the season, and as of Sept. 15 he ranked fifth among National League starters with a 2.75 ERA. Those are ace-like numbers.
Reinforcements are on the way, however. Joe Ross will be activated off the 60-Day disabled list and is scheduled to start on Sept. 18 against Atlanta. He went 7-4 with a 3.49 ERA in 16 starts before getting hurt. Ross’ role in the playoff rotation is in flux, but these last two weeks will go a long way in determining whether his role in October will be as a starter or coming out of the bullpen.
Washington Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper (34) bats during a baseball game against the New York Mets at Nationals Park, Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Bryce Harper, on the other hand, did not have a great week and looks to have regressed back to his season-long struggles following a slight hot streak after his “vacation” a few weeks back. Harper was 0-for-15 at the plate this week and struck out seven times over the last six games, leading Baker to finally express concern for his young star.
“I’ve been concerned about Bryce for a while,” Baker told reporters. “I just know that if he keeps swinging, he’s going to be Bryce. And I’m just hoping it happens in the nick of time, come the last couple weeks of September and the playoffs.”
Washington Nationals reliever Reynaldo Lopez (49), pitches during the seventh inning of a baseball game against the New York Mets in Washington, Monday, Sept. 12, 2016. The Nationals won 8-1. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
With a huge divisional lead and playoff spot basically certain, the team still must continue to put the pedal to the metal and try to lock up the second seed in the National League, which would earn them home-field advantage in the National League Division Series. The Nationals currently enjoy a seemingly-insurmountable four-game lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers, but in baseball, anything can and will happen. These final games offer a chance for some fine-tuning, but winning ballgames will still be the first priority. That could be a great psychological benefit for the team’s internal focus, which may have been lacking in their two most recent postseason trips.