Red-hot Nationals ready to face next test
Despite a slew of injuries, young squad sits atop NL East
TORONTO -- On the final day of the Nationals' road trip, first baseman Adam LaRoche had to sit it out after fouling a pitch off his right foot the night before. So, naturally, rookie Tyler Moore stepped in and hit a pair of homers, doubled and drove in five runs in a 6-2 win vs. the Blue Jays to help extend Washington's winning streak to six games.
That's the kind of crazy, mixed-up, upside-down season it's been for the Nats so far. Even bad breaks have somehow turned out good.
The 3-4-5 engine room of the lineup -- Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Morse and Jayson Werth -- has spent significant time on the disabled list? No problem. That opened the door for 19-year-old phenom Bryce Harper to arrive ahead of schedule and begin terrorizing Major League pitching.
Closer Drew Storen has yet to throw a pitch since going on the disabled list at the end of Spring Training with a bone chip in his right elbow? No problem. The Nationals went into Thursday's off-day tied for second in baseball with 23 saves. Tyler Clippard has converted 9 of 10 opportunities.
Catcher Wilson Ramos is out for the season with a torn ACL in his right knee? Zimmerman and Morse have been slumping while Werth is sidelined with a fractured left wrist? No problem. The Nationals have the second-best record in baseball.
Manager Davey Johnson knows that these can be signs of a team destined for a big year.
"Our veterans have not been doing the things they're capable of, but that's the good news," he said. "You know they're going to do it, and the young kids are going to spur them on and make them do it. I sure like what I'm seeing."
Every season is a series of tests, of course, and Washington faces another beginning Friday night at Nationals Park when the Nationals continue their tour of the American League East with the first-place Yankees coming to town. On deck are the dangerous Tampa Bay Rays.
"It's going to be great," Johnson said. "The big, bad Yankees coming to town. Arguably the best ballclub almost every year forever. They're in first place, we are in first place. I don't think we'll have to get the guys up. It's going to be exciting.
"You have to tip your cap to [general manager Mike] Rizzo and all the scouts. These young players are playing great and carrying us. Great attitude on this ballclub."
Added Moore: "We're going to welcome the challenge and compete with those guys."
These are heady times in the District. Since the Montreal Expos franchise moved to Washington in 2005, the Nationals have never finished above .500, let alone been a serious contender. As recently as '08 through '10, they lost 298 games in three seasons.
That, too, has been turned into an advantage. Rizzo used two first-overall Draft picks to select Stephen Strasburg and Harper, then paid top dollar to get them signed. He pulled off a shrewd trade with Oakland to add Gio Gonzalez to the rotation. Strasburg became the first pitcher to reach 100 strikeouts this season, and he and Gonzalez are the only teammates with eight wins each.
It was evident in Spring Training that the Nationals were headed in the right direction. What's a little bit of a surprise is how quickly they've risen to the top of the division.
"I said ... if we play up to our potential and the young guys do things I know they're capable of doing, we can contend and win the pennant," Johnson said. "We knew we could do it. We are no longer a secret to anybody. We are a pretty good ballclub."
The Nationals have been playing with a bit of a chip on their shoulder all year. They weren't bashful about talking about how good they could be coming into the season. They began referring to their home field as "Natitude Park." And they've been winning by getting contributions from all over the roster, a hallmark of winning teams.
Here's another way of measuring that progress. In their first seven years of existence, the Nationals had just two players win MLB monthly honors. They've already had three this season: Strasburg and Gonzalez were named Pitcher of the Month for April and May, respectively, and Harper was the Rookie of the Month for May.
For years, Washington stressed pitching, and that's paid off. The Nationals' 2.94 ERA is the best in baseball, but it's Harper who has taken baseball by storm since being called up on April 28, the day Zimmerman went on the disabled list with a sore right shoulder.
In Harper's last 21 games, he's hitting .370 with five homers, 14 RBIs and 19 runs scored. Overall, he has a .384 on-base percentage, a .548 slugging percentage and a .933 OPS. To put that in perspective, Mark Zuckerman from CSNwashington.com figured out that only 15 teenagers in the modern era have had 400 total plate appearances in a season. And none have finished with an OPS that high. Mel Ott's .921 in 1928 is the closest pursuer.
Harper's monstrous home run Tuesday night at Rogers Centre brought an audible gasp from the crowd. Earlier in the year, he showed his mettle after Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels intentionally hit him with a pitch in the first inning. His response was to advance to third on a single and steal home.
More challenges lie ahead. Strasburg, for instance, is on an innings count. Opposing pitchers will have more opportunity to dissect video of Harper and develop strategies to get him out. And nearly two-thirds of the schedule remains to be played.
"It's great what we've done," Zimmerman said. "We're happy about it and proud of it, but we know it doesn't mean anything [yet]."
Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, himself a teen star once, talked recently about how much he enjoys watching Harper play. A-Rod will get a close-up view this weekend, but he won't be the only one watching the Nationals, a team hoping to continue what has been a wild ride so far.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. Associate reporter Chris Toman contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.