The Washington Nationals are on pace to finish the season better than any year since their inaugural season in 2005. With just 17 games left this season, the team will have to do more than just limp into the off-season to beat their 73 wins from 2007, the 2nd best finish in team history.
In a previous life, I predicted that the Nats would muster up 76 wins this season. In order to do that, the team would have to go 9-8 in their final 17 games. That should have started with a Nats sweep of the MLB-worst Houston Astros this past weekend. Instead, the Nats took 2 of 3 and must face NL East foes for the rest of the season, including 4 in Philadelphia and 6 against the Florida Marlins, who the Nats are fighting against to stay out of last place for the 4th consecutive season.
In order for the Nats to even have a chance to squeeze out a .500 record between now and the end of the season, putting them at 76 wins, a few things will have to happen:
1. The Philadelphia Phillies must already be satisfied with their playoff standing by their series with the Nats starting September 20th. If they do, the Nationals should be able to capitalize against a Phils roster that won't be playing many regular starters in preparation for the playoffs. The Nationals may be able to avoid Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, who might be given some extra rest because of their already high innings counts. Lee is at 210 innings; Hamels is at 185 innings and has missed 16 games this season with injuries, most recently with throwing shoulder inflammation. Roy Halladay could be given a game off, too, but he has 2 seasons with more than 250 IP, so he's proven he's capable of pitching forever and ever.
2. The Nats pitching will have to be more consistent. Since Jordan Zimmermann left the pitching rotation 12 games ago on August 28th, the team has posted a 4.67 ERA. Nats pitchers that appeared in the 12 games prior to Zimmermann's departure put together an impressive 2.91 ERA. Somehow, the Nationals are going to have to get more out of guys like John Lannan, who had one of the worst outings of the season against the MLB-worst Houston Astros on Saturday, Steptember-call up Tommy Milone, and the recovering Chien-Ming Wang.
The team also needs to get the bullpen to a point where some roles are defined beyond Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen. Until Sunday, when Tom Gorzelanny was used for 3 innings in long relief of Stephen Strasburg, Gorzelanny rarely got more than an inning and some change even though Davey Johnson said that wouldn't happen. Gorze was supposed to be the long man, period, and that's just one example. Any reliever will tell you, it's hard for a bullpen to succeed without defined roles.
3. The Nationals offense has to perform with more consistency, too. Danny Espinosa, once an NL Rookie of the Year candidate, is 3 for his last 20 and sporting a .220/.303/.331 slash line since August 1st with just 2 home runs. Jonny Gomes, who has gotten some fairly regular playing time since his trade to the Nats, is hitting just .215 with 3 home runs and 10 RBI. He was brought over to be a power bat, and he hasn't really produced in that regard.
So with just just over two weeks remaining in the season, it will be interesting to see if the Nationals are capable of putting together a strong finish to this season. Since Davey Johnson took over the Nationals, the team has put together a meager .409 winning percentage (27-39), but the Nationals are certainly capable of going 9-8 down the stretch to end the season. Let's just see if they can right the ship and go into 2012 on a strong note.