How good can the Nationals get? - NBC Sports

How good can the Nationals get?
Top 3 pitchers are reminiscent of the 1990s Braves, and the bats are coming alive
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Heading into an NL East showdown series with the Braves, the Nationals own the National League's best record.
June 29, 2012, 4:06 pm

The Nats scored 12 runs, the most in Johnson's tenure, tied a Nationals record with 21 hits and set a record with 11 extra-base hits in a 12-5 rout of the Colorado Rockies. And then the next night, they added 11 more runs for their first back-to-back games of 11 or more runs since 2005.

"They finally started listening to me,'' Johnson joked. "It only took them a year.''

Coors Field has been the ultimate slump-buster throughout its 18-year history, and It certainly helps to run into the Rockies while their highly questionable two-tiered rotation experiment continues. But that double dose of good timing aside, there's much to smile about in the Nationals' world these days:

With the Los Angeles Dodgers' recent skid, the Nationals own the National League's best record at 43-31 through Thursday. Heading into an NL East showdown series this weekend in Atlanta, the Nationals have led the division for all but 10 days, currently by 3 1/2 games. Nobody has a better road record since last Sept. 12.

And of course, the Nationals lead the majors in team ERA, strikeouts/nine innings, runs allowed, WHIP and opponents' OPS.

And they've accomplished all of this short-handed. Every team has injuries, but key ones, like those to Michael Morse, Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Drew Storen and Wilson Ramos, can decimate even the deepest of rosters. Morse and Zimmerman are back, but the latter three still are missing-in-action.

"It's a testament to the depth we created in the offseason; to the scouts and player-development people,'' general manager Mike Rizzo said. "We're in first place, but we're always trying to build onto what we have. We have one of the youngest teams in baseball, and we feel we're not even scratching surface of our ability levels. We feel like we're just starting to hit on all of our cylinders.''

And to think that one year ago, Jim Riggleman walked away from the manager's job, upset that no contract extension had come his way. Maybe that extension never was going to be offered, but if there ever was a head-scratcher of a decision, Riggleman's was it.

The Nationals are 83-73 in the calendar year under Johnson, who clearly is enjoying himself in this Jack McKeon-esque renaissance. Johnson is 69, and although he speaks more softly than he used to, much of his signature bravado remains.

Forty-seven years after his major-league debut with the Baltimore Orioles, he's dead certain of his convictions, and that seems to bridge whatever generation gap exists between him and his players, the youngest of whom is 19-year-old phenom Bryce Harper.

"Davey has done everything you can do in the game,'' Rizzo said. "Terrific All-Star player, second baseman who hit 43 home runs, Gold Glove defender. He's been the manager of the year, played on a World Series champion, managed a World Series champion.

"When Davey Johnson says something, these guys listen, because he's done it. They know he's there to help them. He's willing to share his knowledge, and the guys just feed off that.''

The Coors Field-fed offensive surge has only boosted clubhouse confidence, as the Nats have busted out of a recent 3-7 stretch in which they averaged only 2.5 runs per game.

"We knew we'd come around,'' Zimmerman said. "We're too good of a team not to score runs all year long. Lucky for us, we have a really good pitching staff that has been the backbone of this team and helped us get to where we at.''

Here's how much pitching coach Steve McCatty's staff has carried the load to date: The Nats are 12th in the NL in runs scored, ahead of only the Marlins, Cubs, Padres and Pirates, yet have a +46 run differential, second only to St. Louis.

Granted, it's way early. But there are similarities to the Braves' top-three rotation dominance of the 1990s. Ace Stephen Strasburg needs no further explanation. The acquisition of Gio Gonzalez from the financially strapped Oakland A's puts Rizzo in the Executive of the Year discussion. And underrated ground-ball machine Jordan Zimmermann could be the ace of some staffs, but is the No. 3 guy here.

Unfortunately, Zimmermann also has a bit of a Matt Cain-snakebit thing going on, as he is 4-6 despite a 2.77 ERA. Wednesday's 11 runs of support skews the numbers that have him receiving one or fewer runs in six of his 15 starts this season, and in 19 of 48 starts since returning from Tommy John surgery last season.

So deep is the rotation that you can count nine starters (with Ross Detweiler, Chein-Ming Wang and Tom Gorzelanny pitching out of the bullpen, and John Lannan, who won 10 games last season, stuck in Triple-A.). That depth could prove vital if and when Strasburg's innings begin to be limited.

The target number isn't likely to exceed 180, and since he's exactly halfway there, it's quite possible that Strasburg could skip a start or two along the way, or be pushed back a day on occasion. Clinching a playoff spot early enough certainly would help, but it's a fine line that the organization will tread down the stretch.

But believe Rizzo when he says, 'we're here to win now, but we're also here to win long-term', and know that means there will be no pushing Strasburg too far.

If the Nationals seem overly skittish about innings limits, at least part of the reason why is McCatty, who is well-versed in the subject - himself a victim of Billy Martin's abuse of the 1980-81 A's rotations.

In 1980, McCatty threw 221.2 innings including 14 in a 2-1 loss to Seattle, and four other pitchers ages 25-28 - Rick Langford (290 innings), Mike Norris (284.1), Matt Keough (250) and Brian Kingman (211.1) - combined to make 159 starts.

The following year, they benefited from a strike-shortened 1981 season that stopped at 109 games, but by 1984, all were either ineffective, injured or in the cases of Kingman and Norris, out of the majors.

After his breakout 2011, Morse didn't play until June 2 due to a lat injury. After 23 games, he is just beginning to feel comfortable and be productive. Werth (wrist) could be back in August. So even though Rizzo reportedly made a fact-finding call to Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd about Carlos Gonzalez's potential availability (no-go for CarGo), Rizzo feels there is enough offense currently on the roster to win.

"Any team that goes extended periods without their 3-4-5 hitters in the lineup is going to struggle to score runs,'' Rizzo said. "We haven't had our 3-4-5 hitters in the same lineup all season. We're definitely anxious to see that happen. We feel confident this is a potent offense. Once we swing the bats like capable of, we feel we're going to be a very dangerous team to play.''

At least part of that confidence is due to Harper's immediate impact. He's not a center fielder long-term, and that's a spot Rizzo will have to address. But expecting anything more from a 19-year-old this season just wouldn't be right.

"As far as skill level on the field, he is as advertised,'' Rizzo said. "He's taken to all facets of the game. He's new to the outfield, and he's taken to that.

"Where he's exceeded expectation is the way he's handled himself in the clubhouse, in the community. He's been terrific. He's been a great teammate, and a guy the other guys really care about and protect.''


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