The four projected starters for the Nats postseason roster (Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, and Gio Gonzalez) all had one final tune up start before the post-season began. Gio Gonzalez was the first to pitch and he went seven innings with one hit, two walks, and twelve strikeouts. Doug Fister followed the next day pitching a complete game shutout allowing three hits with no walks and nine strikeouts. Stephen Strasburg was next and he pitched six shutout innings with two hits, one walk, seven strikeouts and again no runs allowed. All three of those starters went deep into the game, gave up at most three hits, and allowed zero runs. Jordan Zimmermann in his final start of the season topped them all throwing a complete game no-hitter with only one walk and another base runner reaching via a strikeout. It was a dominant start for Jordan Zimmermann that capped off a dominant run for the Washington Nationals, and the only reason more people don’t realize how well the Nationals have played is they didn’t do it for the whole 162 games.
As if it were a sign of things to come the Nationals on Opening Day would fall behind early, lose Wilson Ramos before the seventh inning stretch, and rally to win in extra innings. Those are all marks the Nationals wore for the entire season; a team that overcame injuries, finished the season with 36 comeback wins, and overcame a slow first couple months. April went well enough. It was a winning month with the Nationals finishing it 16-12 and two games back of the Atlanta Braves. May was the turn of the screw for the Nationals. It was a month all too reminiscent of 2013. Injuries mounted up as Ramos was joined on the DL by Zimmerman and Harper and finally LaRoche. It was the Nationals’ worst month of the season and on May 28 they hit their low water mark with a record of 25-27.
Insert your narrative here. That this team is one that isn’t going to quit. That they are fighters made to rally back from the brink of oblivion. Or that they are a team of good guys who were able to put the evil Bryce Harper in his place and harness his power for themselves. Whatever platitudes are written in Boz columns or are spoken on talk radio segments ignore the fact that the Nationals everyone expected to see all season showed up because they showed up. LaRoche, Ramos, Zimmerman, and Harper came off the DL. The Washington Nationals went from averaging 3.9 runs a game for April and May to close out the season averaging 4.3. This propelled them the third highest run total in the NL behind only the Rockies and Dodgers. While third in the league is nothing to sneeze at the true dominance of the Washington Nationals comes from the pitching.
Nobody in all of baseball allowed fewer runs than the Washington Nationals. The month of September and Jordan Zimmermann’s no-hitter on its final day was the perfect bold red exclamation point that the Washington Nationals are a team to be reckoned with. A big debate right now is who would you rather the Nationals play in the NLDS, Pirates or Giants. Who the Nationals play is far less important than how they play and if these last four months are any indication it really shouldn’t matter who the Nationals play at all.
Every team in the postseason earned their passage. The Pirates, like the Nationals, were under .500 and wrote off as a disappointment near the end of May. Then they got hot, and stayed hot, but don’t let another team’s good run distract from the fact that the Nationals 19-8 record in the month of September is the best in all of baseball. The Nationals were a good team for much of the season, but they ended it on a run. Especially a pitching staff that closed out the final month with a 2.55 ERA and 2.87 FIP. Both marks are second in all of baseball to the Pittsburgh Pirates, but when looking at just the rotation the Nationals closed out the season with the best ERA (2.25) of any team in baseball and best FIP (2.80) of any playoff team.
Over the course of 162 the Nationals rotation leads baseball in ERA, FIP, BB/9, HR/9, and are the best in the NL in fWAR. The Nationals rotation was excellent all season, took it to another level in September, and had the season capped off with the magical occurrence of a no-hitter. This was the exclamation point that the 2014 Washington Nationals are the reckoning. The playoffs aren’t about who’s the best, but who’s the hottest and the 2014 Washington Nationals finished with the best record in the NL because they are hot. Baseball is not a momentum sport. A team is only as good as the next day’s starting pitcher, but when that is Strasburg, Zimmermann, Fister, Gonzalez, or Roark then momentum is on your side.
Like a steamroller on an incline the Nationals tore through the second half of the season playing at a 104 win pace. They were finally the team they were predicted to be for 2013, and it wasn’t because they refused to quit or that they were full of heart and spunk. It was because they were finally healthy. The team everyone expected to see had finally taken the field because the team everyone expected to see had finally taken the field. Once healthy, or mostly healthy, the Washington Nationals marched, pillaged, and conquered their way to their second NL East crown in three seasons. They put to bed the notion that they can’t beat the Atlanta Braves or good teams or that Stephen Strasburg is mentally incomplete or that Bryce Harper is a spoiled child that doesn’t respect Matt Williams. All these early season narratives were put to sleep and the Nationals enter the postseason not only as the best team in the NL, but also the hottest.