Some 5 12 weeks ago, the Nationals opened what they knew would be as daunting a stretch of baseball as any team was likely to face this season: 33 consecutive games against opponents from only the NL East and AL East, all of them boasting winning records at some point.
Well, that stretch -- it wound up as only 32 games because of a rainout against the Braves -- finally came to an end yesterday in Baltimore. And what did we learn about the Nationals throughout it all?
If anything, we learned this club is remarkably consistent, and that should be a harbinger of things to come.
When the stretch began on May 18, the Nationals were 23-15, a half-game back of Atlanta in the NL East. Their pitching staff boasted a 2.94 ERA and 1.11 WHIP, best in the majors. Their lineup had produced a .243 batting average, .316 on-base percentage and .699 OPS, ranking in the bottom third of the league.
How did they do during this stretch? Well, their record was 18-14, which was good enough to catapult themselves into first place and a 3 12-game lead over the Mets. Their pitching staff, meanwhile, posted a 2.96 ERA and 1.20 WHIP, still best in the majors. And that lineup continued to struggle, hitting a collective .231 with a .288 on-base percentage and .680 OPS that still ranks among the lowest in the league.
Honestly, there's not that much difference between the way the Nationals performed during their first 38 games and during these latest 32 games. Which should be viewed as an encouraging sign.
Against tough competition every single night, they continue to pitch better than anyone else in the sport. Sure, it would be nice if that lineup produced just a bit more and gave the pitching staff a little bit of cushion -- that would've come in handy during yesterday's 2-1 loss at Camden Yards -- but this is a team that nearly halfway through the season has established it can win in spite of its sub-par offense.
If there's been one disturbing trend, it's probably the Nationals' overall struggles against baseball's other elite clubs. The three best teams they've played this season are the Yankees, Dodgers and Orioles. Their record against those three clubs is 2-10. Against everyone else in the sport, they're 39-19.
The good news is that they're beating the teams they're supposed to beat. The bad news is they're not beating the kind of teams that might stand in their way come October.
Then again, if the worst complaint Nationals fans have right now is that their team looks good enough to get to October (but perhaps not good to get through October), this franchise has made some gargantuan strides over the last 70 games.