PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM…from October when we were wondering how they could beat the Dodgers in the NLDS.

 

The longest season in professional sports wrapped up last weekend with the Nationals not quite done for 2016.  Instead of last year’s soggy plate of nachos rotting on the September plate, the Nats are headed to the playoffs for the third time in five years.

Five major turning points to the 2016 season:

1- Murph and the Magic Tones.  When the Nats brought in NLCS MVP Daniel Murphy as their main free agent find in the offseason, it had the underwhelming taste of an average cake with so-so frosting.  To get 15 homers and 80 RBI from the second baseman would be nice…but those were also numbers he’d yet to reach in his major league career.  When they started the season the second baseman was batting 5th between Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth (perhaps to keep the righty-lefty-righty thing going).  What followed was completely unforeseen as Murphy went on a tear that would have him flirt with .400 as late as Memorial Day…while driving in a ton of runs as the rest of the Nats lineup fell off a collective cliff.  He made his former team rue the day they let him go…hitting .413 with 9 HR and 21 RBI in 19 games against the Mets.  Murphy set career highs, hitting .347 with 25 HR and 104 RBI before being sidelined in September with a gluteal strain.  Just as his emergence helped lead to a playoff appearance, not being able to play and return to form against the Dodgers might lead to another early exit for the Nats.

2- Roark’s Return to the Rotation.  Last season Tanner Roark was buried in a bullpen role, going 4-7 with an ERA of 4.38.  Jordan Zimmermann’s departure via free agency delivered an opportunity…and Roark bettered his numbers from 2014 (15-10, 138 strikeouts and an ERA of 2.84) by going 16-10 while striking out 172 and posting an ERA of 2.83.  His importance was underscored in a rotation where Stephen Stasburg and Joe Ross were on the shelf for most of the second half of the season…and Gio Gonzalez was consistently uneven throughout the year.  While Max Scherzer (league-best 20 wins and 284 strikeouts) will probably get the Cy Young Award, Roark deserves a Best Supporting Actor nomination.

3- Werth’s Worth More Hitting Second.  After hitting .211 in April while batting primarily 5th or 6th, it looked like the 37-year old was reaching the sad final chapters of his stay in DC.  At the same time, nothing was working in the Nats’ #2 spot of the order:  Anthony Rendon (.236) was not the answer and coupled with Ben Revere’s injury plus slow start the table-setters were not providing Bryce Harper & Daniel Murphy many RBI opportunities.  On Memorial Day, Werth was moved into the #2 spot and went 1 for 4 with a run scored and an RBI.  The veteran stayed and solidified a lineup trying to find itself…and while his .259 is only 8 points higher than everyone else hitting 2nd this year Werth’s run production dwarfs the everybody else hitting 2nd this year ((28 more RBI over 162 games played) .  The move also let Anthony Rendon bat deeper in the order and eventually find his groove (his 52 RBI since the All Star break ranks 5th in the National League).

4- Moving on to Melancon…and Releasing another Reliever.  After choking Bryce Harper in the Nats dugout last September, many thought that Jonathan Papelbon would be gone-and quickly.  To the surprise of many he remained on the roster and was the team’s closer for the first half of the season (not including his trip to the disabled list).  In late July, General Manager Mike Rizzo was looking for a closer.  He found one in Pittsburgh’s Mark Melancon…who quietly saved 17 of 18 opportunities while not attempting to strangle any of his teammates.  Melancon’s addition meant the Nationals no longer had to continue the awkward dance with Papelbon…and they released the potential ticking time bomb two weeks later.  As bad as last year’s deal for Papelbon blew up the bullpen, this year’s deadline deal rescued the relief corps.

5- Leading off at Last.  Ben Revere and Michael A. Taylor both failed to click as leadoff hitters during the first half of the season…and while manager Dusty Baker saw the bat of Trea Turner in AAA Syracuse lighting things up with speed to match, he had no place to play him.  Daniel Murphy was off to his incredible start and Danny Espinosa was exceeding expectations while providing solid defense at shortstop.  However, there was an offensive vacuum in centerfield with Revere and Taylor.  While still in the minors Turner began playing games in in the outfield…and Dusty Baker had his master chess move in place.  Turner turned both the leadoff spot and centerfield positions from liabilities into offensive spark plugs, leading the majors in triples and steals since the All Star Break. The rookie’s defense-learned on the fly-for the most part has been solid.

 

 

Advertisements