The Nationals lost to the Phillies on Sunday afternoon in 10 innings, but that came after they secured the series win with victories on Friday and Saturday. The Nats remain atop the majors at 9-2 as they head to Miami to take on Jose Fernandez and the Marlins.
Here are some observations from the weekend...
Rotation is leading the way: The Nationals surprised some of us (including me) by not upgrading their rotation this offseason, given they let Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister go in free agency. Their departures left the Nats with questions in their rotation and in the depth behind it really for the first time in a few years. So far, though, the Nats' rotation has been excellent. After Sunday, Nats starters now hold a 0.85 ERA in 42 1/3 innings over their last six games. Their pitching staff as a whole, in fact, has been very good. The Nats lead the majors in team ERA (2.06) and starters ERA (1.87). That second one, in particular, is a scary number. Interestingly enough, the Nats' starting rotation is getting it done in different ways than before. In 2015, they ranked third in MLB in strikeouts. Right now they are 15th in baseball with only 60 strikeouts through 11 starts. To be fair, though, it helps to play the Braves and Phillies, two teams that currently rank in the bottom third of baseball in runs per game.
It's early, but...: The Nationals have only played 11 games, but there are a few statistical categories they are already showing improvement in from last season. Strikeouts on offense, for one, are way down. The Nationals had the third-most strikeouts of any team in 2015 with 1,344 total Ks. They currently have the eighth-fewest strikeouts in baseball. Of course, it doesn't hurt having Bryce Harper - who ranks 9th in baseball with a 8.3 K % - on the team. Wilson Ramos (40th) and Anthony Rendon (49th) also place in the top 50 currently among qualified batters in strikeout percentage. Another category they look better in is defensive errors. The Nats are tied with the Red Sox for the fewest errors in baseball, having only committed three so far. Last season they had the 16th-most errors in MLB, which ranked them as average. Right now they are way above average.
Papelbon's first blown save: Jonathan Papelbon blew his first save of the 2016 season on Sunday after going a perfect 5-for-5 to begin the year. Blown saves happen, even to the best closers. And after just one there is no reason to worry about Papelbon, who has 354 career saves and only blew two in 26 chances in 2015. One thing, though, did stand out to me about the debate on social media after the Nats' loss. Some were saying that as long as Papelbon holds the success rate he has had since he joined the Nats, they will be fine. That is not correct. Papelbon has now blown three saves in 15 chances since he was traded to the Nats last July. That is not a good percentage. For some context, the top 10 closers in save opportunities last year all had 40 or more. If Papelbon were to get 40 save opportunities (he will likely get more than that) he would blow eight saves at that rate. That would have led the majors each of the last two years. And, for a comparison, Rafael Soriano lost his job as Nats closer in 2014 when he blew seven. Even if Papelbon blows a save once every six chances, as he has so far in just this season alone, his job could come into question at some point. That rate would give him six blown saves by the time he reached 30 saves overall. In case you were wondering, Papelbon's career-high is eight, set back in 2010. He has blown six saves or more in a season three times in his career.