When the season began, Washington Nationals fans had a set of expectations. Those expectations varied as much as the people who had them, but it is safe to say that most fans were happy at the idea of a record above .500 for the 2012 campaign before the season began. On July 26, after 97 games, that’s no longer the case. Nats fans expect more now. They expect to win something big.
In the preseason, I said the Nationals would finish third in the National League East entering this season, behind the Philadelphia Phillies and the Atlanta Braves. The Phillies haven’t worked out very well so far this year and are in last place in the division and 14 games back. The Miami Marlins, who many expected to finish in first in the East, are 13.5 games back and in fourth place.
The Nats, though, behind exceptional pitching and a quickly improving offense, have showed people across the baseball universe that simply finishing over .500 isn’t going to be enough for them. At 58-39, the Nats are 19 games over the .500 mark, which is the first time that’s happened since July 5, 2005. Most everyone agrees that this team is way, way better than that team. The team is younger, more vibrant, and less vulnerable to a collapse down the stretch.
Nats pitchers still have the best ERA in the NL, and they don’t strand nearly as many base runners as they did earlier in the season. Maybe even more important than that, this team believes it can win. Whether it’s the budding relationship between Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, or the camaraderie that the hitters have amongst themselves, there’s a different feel when you watch this team. You get the feeling they’re going to win, even when things are going poorly.
Just one more win this year will tie the 2008 and 2009 win totals (59), and it’s not even August yet. This team, and its fans, have come a long way in a relatively short amount of time. The season isn’t over yet; there is a lot of baseball yet to play. But it’s time to get excited about what you’re seeing. It’s about being excited about watching a team that has a chance to win every single game. For baseball fans in DC that have been starved for good baseball, what else can you ask for?
I'm going to knock on wood as I type this, but the real key to this season's success has been the rotation managing to be injury free (ignoring Wang). Rizzo built this team so that the starting pitching would be the key to success, even to the point of sacrificing offense at first base so that each infielder would have great range and be of Gold Glove caliber and thus be capable of robbing many base hits from opponents. The strategy has worked brilliantly, and is why the Nats have been able to overcome so many injuries to other parts of the team. It all begins and ends with the rotation, and will continue doing so the rest of the way.