During a season that has been just short of magical, an ugly weekend sweep at the hands of the rival Philadelphia Phillies has got Nationals fans (and the media) all up in arms. For the past few weeks, most of the talk has been centered on why (or whether) the Nats should shut down Stephen Strasburg next month, as the team has planned to do since before the season started. Now, after three ugly losses to a division rival, skittish fans who have just started following the team and media types looking for an angle to report on suddenly think the sky is falling. My message to them is … RELAX.
Watching the series this weekend (and I suffered through all three games), reminded me of another three game sweep the Nationals endured earlier this year at the hands of the New York Yankees. Both the Phillies and Yankees fielded veteran line ups with deep playoff experience. Those line ups took away one of the Nationals' big advantages - pitching. Each team worked high pitch counts and scored a run or two early in the game, putting pressure on the Nats' starting pitching. No Nats starter pitched past the 6th inning in any of those six losses and in two of the three games against each team, the opponents got at least one run in the first inning. The end result? While the Nats bullpen is deep and strong, being called upon to pitch so many innings day after day put pressure on them to get meaningful outs.
Meanwhile, both the Yanks and Phils sent experienced playoff pitchers to the mound and the Nationals struggled. Against the Yankees, the near 40 year old Andy Pettitte tip toed around the Nats line up for 7 innings, giving up 2 runs, while Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova yielded a lone run each. Similarly, against the Phillies, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, neither of whom is what they once were, but are still very good pitchers, dominated the Nats line up, throwing high percentages of strikes and inducing many strike outs and weak grounders while giving up two runs and one run respectively. The Nats had no better luck against Kyle Kendrick, while Phils batters got to Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson early, scoring runs off both in the first inning and driving up their pitching counts so that neither one was in the game to start the 7th inning.
The results speak for themselves. In those six games, the Nats scored a total of 11 runs - 1 run twice, 2 runs 3 times and 3 runs once while giving up 28 runs, including 4 runs in all three games against Philadelphia, and 4, 5 and 7 runs in the Yanks' three game sweep. So is all of this cause for concern? Yes and no. On the positive side, the Nats are still in 1st place by 4.5 games over the Braves, still have a deep and talented starting rotation and bullpen and a starting line up which, while not at full strength, is not awful either. The team's remaining schedule is manageable. While there are a number of games against the rival Phillies and three more at the contending Braves, half of the team's remaining games are against also rans like the Cubs, Brewers and Marlins (a total of 13 games) and three against the fast fading Mets. Plus, come September 1, the team can expand its roster and add critical bench and bullpen depth.
The bad news? Most of the team's starters have not been in a playoff race before and may fold under pressure. Strasburg is probably 3 starts away from being shut down (he'll be replaced by the capable, but not as talented John Lannan) and key contributors like Ian Desmond and Mike Morse are dinged up. Most importantly, other contenders have been handed a blueprint of how to handle the Nats - score early, run up the starting pitcher's pitch count and expect the inexperienced Nats may make a bone headed play or two along the way. Strong pitching can shut them down and the team seems to play tight if it gets down early against veteran pitchers.
These last 32 games, and, barring a true September collapse, will be a great testing ground for this young but talented group. They are captained by a very experienced manager who has won a World Series and taken three teams to the playoffs. Davey Johnson may have done a wonderful managing job until now, but the next month will truly test his skills. The potential this team has for growth before the playoffs start may cement a foundation for a deep run this year and a string of appearances in years to come. One thing fans should not do is read too much into this weekend's sweep. It's baseball, it happens, but there's no need to hit the panic button.