Entering the All-Star break, the Washington Nationals were 48-48 and sit five and a half games behind the first place Philadelphia Phillies in the National League East. Prior to the season the Nationals were World Series favorites but have failed to live up to the expectations.
A big reason for the Washington Nationals current state is the injuries to key starters and depth players. Pitchers Stephen Strasburg and Sean Doolittle, 2nd basemen Daniel Murphy, outfielders Adam Eaton and Brian Goodwin, catcher Matt Wieters, 3rd basemen Anthony Rendon, first basemen Ryan Zimmerman and utility infielders Howie Kendricks and Matt Adams have all missed time with injuries. With the main core of the Nationals lineup out for extended periods of time, it is hard to stay afloat in what has become a very competitive NL East. Even after some key players have returned from injury, the team has struggled.
Daniel Murphy struggled in his first few weeks back and it was not until the last few games before the break that he started to show his 2017 form. A fully healthy Murphy bodes well for the Nationals playoff chances and he will be necessary to turn the season around.
Sean Doolittle, the closer has been almost un-hittable. He has 22 saves in 23 attempts with a 1.45 era. Named to his second All-Star game, Doolittle was placed on the DL and missed the last two weeks before the break. He will begin the second half on the DL and this will be an important test of their bullpen. It will be up to recently traded for Kelvin Herrera to anchor the closer spot until Doolittle can return.
Hopefully, the All-Star break gave some of their players enough time to recuperate because they are going to need all hands on deck going into the final stretch.
Michael A. Taylor
Despite the injuries, some of the healthy Nationals have not been playing up to expectations. Michael A. Taylor was supposed to take the next step after having a successful 2017 where he hit .271 with 19 home runs. In the playoffs against the Cubs, he came up big with a grand slam to force a game 5. He kept the streak going with a home run in Game 5 as well.
But this year he has been more of a disappointment. While he has been a demon on the base paths with 24 stolen bases, he is hitting only .240 with five home runs. This does not mean much if he can not get on base consistently. Taylor’s struggles have led to him being replaced in the starting lineup by rookie sensation Juan Soto. Now Taylor has been regulated to pinch-hitting and the occasional start to give rest to Adam Eaton, Juan Soto and Bryce Harper.
The star of the franchise is in the midst of a down year. Harper has a slash line of .214/.365/.468 with 23 home runs and 54 RBIs. He is on pace to set a career high in walks, but unfortunately, he is also on pace to set a career high in strikeouts as well. Harper’s steady decline at the plate is a huge part of the Nationals struggles. While the Nationals are a very deep team talent wise, it is up to their superstar to lead the way.
Harper has been an inconsistent player since entering the league. He won the MVP award in 2015 which was followed by a mediocre 2016 where he hit .243, 24 home runs and 86 RBIs. In 2017 Harper rebounded and was on pace to win his second MVP award when he severely injured his knee running out an infield grounder. This year has been very similar to his 2016 year and Bryce will need to dig deep and finish strong if the Nationals want to have a better chance of reaching the playoffs for a third straight year. Harper is coming off his first home run derby title which he won in his home park. This could be just the spark Harper needs to start his comeback.
The Pitching Staff
Besides Max Scherzer, the pitching staff is having a down year. Tanner Roark has not looked like himself and his ERA has been steadily rising since 2016. Over the last three seasons, his ERA has gone from 2.83 to 4.67 to 4.87. Do not be surprised if the Nationals trade for another starter at the trade deadline to help out in the rotation.
Gio Gonzalez started the season where he left it last year, being nearly untouchable. Through May 9 Gonzalez was 4-2 with a 2.22 era. On May 11, Matt Wieters went on the DL and Gonzalez started to decline and he did not mesh well with rookie catchers Spencer Kieboom and Pedro Severino. June was especially difficult for Gonzalez as he went 0-3 with an 8.44 era in five starts. His season stats have ballooned to 6-6 with a 3.72 era. Luckily for Gonzales, Wieters was recently reactivated off the DL.
Stephen Strasburg is supposed to make his first start since the injury on Friday against the Atlanta Braves. Last year he served a stint on the DL right before the All-Star break. He did not return until the end of August, but upon his return, he ended the season with a 0.86 era and 76 strikeouts in 10 starts. If Strasburg posts similar numbers in the second half after returning from the DL, the Nationals will be in great position to take back the division.
Jeremy Hellickson has been a pleasant surprise. In 13 starts he is 4-1 with a 3.29 era. Just like most of the team, Hellickson served a brief stint on the DL which really tested the Nationals depth. Hellickson should fit in nicely as the third starter behind co-aces Scherzer and Strasburg.
Max Scherzer has been his usual dominant self as he is 12-5 with a 2.41 era and 182 strikeouts. Scherzer is on track to win his fourth Cy Young award and his third in a row.
If the starting rotation can bounce back to their 2017 forms, a third straight playoff appearance should not be out of the question for the Washington Nationals.
Featured Image from The Hamilton Spectator