The Washington Nationals and Minnesota Twins made a solid, early case for “game of the year” during Sunday’s 16-inning marathon, a contest in which the host Nats came back to win 6-5. The thriller featured 38 total players, 516 pitches, and five hours and 56 minutes of play, according to MLB.com, and included a pair of mega-clutch long balls from Nationals batters.
The walk-off bomb in the bottom of the 16th was provided by Chris Heisey, but the one that everyone is talking about is the mammoth, pinch-hit home run from reigning National League MVP Bryce Harper to start the ninth frame and tie it at four. Harper is off to another sizzling start in 2016 and looks as motivated as ever, not only to win his second MVP award, but to get this talented club back to the postseason.
Washington entered play Tuesday with a 14-4 mark, an MLB-best .778 winning percentage, and a nice three-game lead over the second-place New York Mets in the NL East. The Nationals’ early success is far from a surprise, as they have entered the past few seasons as one of the favorites in the senior circuit, but for some reason (even in the early-going), this year feels different.
Nats fans pray that the team finally capitalizes on hefty expectations and makes a lengthy run in the playoffs, and the early returns could not look better. Maybe you are sticking with the Kansas City Royals in 2016, maybe you are buying the Chicago White Sox’s fast start, or perhaps you still like the Houston Astros to take home their first World Series title despite a sluggish start.
The NL boasts a loaded field of contenders — many of whom look great this April — like the defending pennant-winning Mets, the stacked Chicago Cubs, the NL West-leading Los Angeles Dodgers, and the San Francisco Giants, who happen to love playing baseball in even years this decade. Still, as of this early juncture in the regular season, the Nationals look like the best team and therefore, the current 2016 World Series favorites.
Reason No. 1 for this argument is none other than Harper, who is lighting it up at another historic pace. The enigmatic outfielder is off to a .323/.405/.855/1.260 start and leads the majors with his nine home runs and 23 runs batted in. He also has more walks (10) and as many dingers as he does strikeouts (nine), and is arguably the most dangerous hitter in the game right now.
Harper brings an unprecedented spark to baseball in the nation’s capital and is a must-see at-bat in the game today. It would be a shock if Harper did not win the hardware for the second straight time. Then, when you throw in a red-hot Daniel Murphy and the solid production from catcher Wilson Ramos, you have an offense that can provide ample run support for a pitching staff, not that this group needs much anyway.
Coming into action Tuesday, the Nationals led the entire league in team ERA at 2.24, with the Chicago White Sox a somewhat distant second at 2.41. The Chicago Cubs are second in the NL at 2.56 and the closest NL East rival were the Mets at 2.95.
Yeah, it is ridiculously early in the campaign, but the Washington group of arms looks the best so far. They also rank second in the majors in batting average against at .206 and showcase five starters who have top-of-the-rotation stuff and potential in their repertoire.
It starts with the most accomplished man of the bunch, Max Scherzer, who ironically is probably off to the slowest start of the group. Still, three straight seasons of finishing inside the top-five for Cy Young voting means that this guy is special. The obvious X-factor, Stephen Strasburg, has carried his momentum from last year’s impressive second half over to this spring and is currently 3-0 with a 2.17 ERA, while carrying a top-10 walk and hits per inning mark at 0.93, to go along with 31 strikeouts.
Not to be outdone by Stras is southpaw Gio Gonzalez, who ranks fifth in the National League with his 1.42 ERA. The back-end of the rotation has been great as well, starting with 29-year-old Tanner Roark. The Ill. native is 2-2 with a 2.63 ERA through four starts and 24 innings, and is coming off of a historically great 15-strikeout game against the Minnesota Twins last week.
Rounding out the bunch is Joe Ross, who is currently mending a minor injury in the form of a blister, but is not expected to miss much time. In three April starts, Ross has dominated to the tune of a 2-0 record, 0.54 ERA, and 0.84 WHIP in 16 2/3 innings. Simply put, the Nationals starting staff is on fire to start the season.
Our last argument in favor of the Nationals as current World Series favorites is the presence of the main man in the dugout, Dusty Baker. The legendary manager is succeeding so far in his first year with this organization, and his resume and experience speaks for itself. The 66-year-old former major league outfielder spent 1993 through 2002 managing some ultra-talented Giants clubs, but ones that also consisted of clashing hotheads Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent.
Then from 2003-06, Baker survived his tenure with the Cubs, nearly leading them back to the Fall Classic before finally succumbing to the not-so-easy role of managing the historically bad team. Baker’s third managerial position was largely successful in bringing the Cincinnati Reds to three postseasons in six tries, including a pair of division titles.
Through it all, Baker has compiled a 1,685-1,508 record, good for a .528 winning percentage. He has one pennant win under his belt, a trio of NL Manager of the Year awards in stow, and is regarded as one of the best in the business.
The annual expectations for the Nationals seem to be rising. Harper and Strasburg are near their prime and living up to their high-profile billing, but the fanbase probably cannot take much more of the team’s failures. With a top-of-the-field, balanced roster, and a manager who thrived in difficult environments before, fans may finally get the right answer to their yearly winter offseason wish.
Follow Victor on Twitter @vbarbosa1127