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As you’ve probably read from the reputable news sources this morning the
Nationals will be getting Bryce Harper back tonight, and in case you’ve been
living under a rock the replacement left fielders haven’t hit well in his
absence. To highlight this in the most simple of fashions the Washington
Nationals are 25-19 when Harper is in the line-up and 16-19 when he isn’t. This
shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. It is hard for any team to cope without
their best player and even harder when their back-ups all have an under .600
OPS. Roger Bernadina, Steve Lombardozzi, Tyler Moore, and Jeff Kobernus haven’t
just looked like bench players getting exposed, but like AAAA players getting
In many ways the Nationals are lucky
to be only 6.5 games back from the Braves, and Harper will provide a boast. It
is possible to look back at how many runs a game the Nationals scored with
Harper in the line-up, but that is close to meaningless. As it has been noted
before the Nationals haven’t had anything close to their Opening Day line-up on
the field since April 15. So while Harper was in the line-up it was without
Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Espinosa instead of Rendon, and a hard slumping
Adam LaRoche. The line-up Harper is returning to is different than the one he
left. Since the Nationals inserted Rendon at second the Nationals offense has
averaged over four runs a game and it is hard to imagine that that won’t get
better with Harper.
The real question is if the Nationals
can still win the division at 6.5 games back from the Braves on July 1. Some
have said that this is such a rare occurrence that it shouldn’t even be counted
as realistic, but when the reality of 2013 lies somewhere west of Parts Unknown
it is impossible to say what is and isn’t realistic. Everything that is
possible is realistic, but that shouldn’t be the question. The Nationals are
not eliminated from the division and therefore can still win it, but how many
times in the last ten seasons has a team 6.5 games back in their division won
the division? This may be somewhat hard to quantify because, I suspect, that
many of the teams that are historically down at least 6.5 games aren’t in second
place. As of this moment at 6.5 games back the Nationals are further back from
the Braves than the last place team in the NL West. So perhaps it isn’t only
important to look at the number of games back but how many times a team behind
in the division by a margin greater than four games back was able to win that
Going back a year ago to 2012 and
there is immediately some bad news. Four of the six division winners were
leading their division on the morning of July 1, but then there is this. The Detroit
Tigers were in third place behind the White Sox and Indians 4.0 games back in
the division, and even more amazing the Oakland A’s were in third place with a
record of 37-42 and 13.0 games out of their division. Expecting the Nationals
to go on an Oakland A’s type run is a little unreasonable, but at 6.5 games out
as opposed to 13.0, they don’t need to.
2011 will always be remembered for its
final day in which the Cardinals overtook the Braves for the NL Wild Card and
the Rays the Red Sox for the AL Wild Card, but as of the morning of July first
only one eventual division winner was in second place and that was the Arizona
Diamondbacks who set a measly 2.0 games back of the Giants.
2010 offers some good news as only
half the eventual division winners were leading their division as the sun rose
on July 1, but the furthest back were the San Francisco Giants at 5.5 games.
The Phillies were in third place but were only 3.5 games back of the Braves,
and the Rays were also in third but 2.0 games back from the Yankees.
Again in 2009 half of the division
winners were not in the lead on this date in history, but of those the furthest
back were the Minnesota Twins who were 4.0 games back of the Detroit Tigers and
tied for second place with the White Sox. If anyone remembers the end of 2009
it was very exciting. The Twins looked out of it as the last month of the
season started and plans were made to say goodbye to the Metrodome, but then
the Twins started winning, and kept winning, and wouldn’t stop winning, and
then they forced a game 163 to win the division and go to the playoffs. So what
was scheduled as the last game in the Metrodome ended up being the fourth to
last game in the Metrodome or something like that.
2008 is a little depressing as only
one division winner wasn’t in first, and those were the Dodgers who had an
under .500 record, but were chasing the 42-41 Diamondbacks and ended up winning
the division with 84 wins. I can say with confidence right now that it is going
to take more than 84 wins to win the 2013 NL East.
2007. To fans of the NL East that year
should bring back a few memories of a team blowing a big lead. The Mets had a
6.0 lead on the Phillies on July 1 and a 4.0 division lead overall. As the
season wore on they increased this lead to 7.0 games on September 12, and then
with two weeks left to play in the season were swept by the Phillies, lost two
of three to the Nats, righted the ship for a minute taking three of four from
the Marlins, then getting swept by the Nationals, and after entering the final
series of the season trailing in the division by a game they would lose two out
of three to the Marlins and surrender the division to the Phillies.
The only real drama in 2006 was the
Twins sitting at 43-35, in third place, and 11.0 games out of the division
going on the classic Minnesota run and winning the 2006 AL Central. Aside from
that every other eventual division winner was in first place on the morning of
July 1. Perhaps Denard Span brought a little bit of that Twins magic with him
and the Nationals are poised for a big second half run. Or it could be that
bringing back Bryce Harper to complement what Anthony Rendon has already meant
to the offense will spark the Nationals to go on an extended run to catch and
eventually take down the Braves. I have to admit that I am stalling a bit on
2006, but I know what I am going to see when I look at 2005, and I am not all
that interested in reliving that, but here we go.
On July 1 of 2005 the Washington Nationals had a 4.5 game lead on the
Atlanta Braves and an 8.0 game lead on the last place team in the division, the
New York Mets. By the time the season was over every team in the NL East would
pass the Nationals. The 2005 Washington Nationals didn’t just lose the division
they finished last. There are many reasons for this. Most of the early season
success was done with smoke and mirrors. The 2005 Washington Nationals didn’t
have the players, the pitching, or much of anything of a first place team.
There was no youth and barely any talent. Think about the stars of that team.
None of Nick Johnson, Jose Guillen, Brad Wilkerson, John Patterson, and Chad
Cordero were long for baseball after the 2005 season. I remember July 1 of
2005. It was exciting. The Nats were going to win the division. There was no
way they were going to lose it. The tired Expos just needed a boost of playing
in front of people. We believed in magic, but there were so many signs that
this was a mirage, but we were all too new to baseball to understand this.
As far as the rest of the divisions in 2005 only one other winner wasn’t in
first place and those were the Yankees who were one game over .500 at 39-38 and
6.0 games out. They ended up winning 95 games and the division.
Take this however you want, but when I look at this I find hope. Every
season from since the Nationals have moved to DC a team has come back and won
the division from second place or lower, and on many of those occasions those
teams are down by at least 6.0 games. The Nationals are 6.5 games back, but
they are about to get back one of the best players in the NL, Strasburg,
Zimmermann, and Gio have all been pitching like themselves, the Nationals can
add bench and a fifth starter at the deadline. They have the ability to come
back. It is not going to be easy, and on the scale of probability it is closer
to unlikely than anything else, but to say it isn’t realistic is short sighted.
If it isn’t the Nationals that come back and take their division it is going to
be someone else, and not many other teams have the talent to do it. The Dodgers
certainly could, anyone in the AL East could win that division, and from just
looking back at history I’m not going to count out the Twins, scrap that I am
counting out the Twins.
Nothing is decided yet and there is still
a lot of baseball left to play. With Bryce Harper back and a majority of the
dead weight cut the Washington Nationals are uniquely positioned to play that
baseball 6.5 games better than the Atlanta Braves.