Can the Washington Nationals Rule the National League?

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It started with a question about star outfielder Bryce Harper. The slugging 21-year-old batted a career-low .249 through Aug. 5, smashing only three homers along the way. The significant drop in production fed into rumors that he could be sent to Triple-A in an effort to get him out of the slump. Washington Nationals (71-53) Manager Matt Williams wouldn’t have any more speculation, though. “It’s not fair to the kid, it’s not fair to the rest of the guys in that clubhouse to even think about sending Bryce Harper to the minor leagues, or to cause a stir,” he told reporters Aug. 6. “It’s unacceptable. It won’t happen.”

Harper hit a home run the next night to lead the Nationals past the New York Mets, lighting a fire in the rest of the team. The Nats proceeded to win nine of their next 11 (as of Aug. 20), including five one-run victories and three walk-offs, to build six games of separation between them and the Atlanta Braves at the top of the National League East standings. While the Oakland Athletics and the Detroit Tigers seemingly won the trade deadline by bolstering their already stellar pitching staffs, the Nationals trusted their rotation and waited for their big slugger to find his groove. That faith and patience could pay off come October.

In a pitcher-centric league, the top squads feature some of the most electric hurlers, from Justin Verlander to Sonny Gray to Clayton Kershaw. Washington has its own highly touted ace, Stephen Strasburg, but unlike other contenders, the team’s success comes from a full rotation, instead of two or three high quality starters. It’s a luxury Oakland, Detroit, and (to a lesser extent) Los Angeles looked to replicate at the trade deadline.

The Athletics moved top prospect Addison Russell and slugger Yoenis Cespedes for aces Jeff Samardzija and Jon Lester, a pending free agent, to join Gray and Scott Kazmir. The Tigers strengthened their World Series hopes by adding 2012 Cy Young winner David Price to a rotation that already included the 2011 and 2013 recipients, Verlander and Max Scherzer, respectively. The Dodgers have relied on two-time Cy Young winner Kershaw, who led the National League in lowest ERA for the last three seasons, but continue to look for stronger fourth and fifth starters.

Strasburgh and the Nationals, though, own the second-best ERA in baseball—behind the Seattle Mariners—thanks to their consistent rotation, built through the draft and offseason trades. The homegrown Jordan Zimmermann and trade pickups Doug Fister and Tanner Roark all boast a WAR (number of wins a player is worth above a replacement player) greater than 3.00 wins. The Mariners are the only other team with a winning record to have three pitchers worth 3.00 or more wins. Two-time All-Star and former 20-game winner Gio Gonzalez rounds out the rotation—hardly a bad option for a fifth starter.

But the Nats don’t rely on pitching. Even as Harper struggled at the plate this year, first baseman Adam LaRoche, catcher Wilson Ramos, and centerfielder Denard Span have taken the load. In a tight National League race, with eight teams vying for five spots, Washington leads with a 100 more runs scored than runs allowed. Only the Dodgers come close to Washington with a differential of 52.

As Washington continues to roll through August, Harper has been returning to form, like a sleeping giant that’s been awaken. He’s rewarded his manager’s vote of confidence so far by matching his season total for home runs with three in the last 12 games and batting .262. While he continues to shake off his early season cobwebs, Harper isn’t reading too much into his recent success; he just wants to contribute.

“If I strike out, I strike out,” he told reporters Aug. 14. “If I walk, I walk. If I don’t get a hit, I don’t get a hit. If I hit a homer, if I hit a double, as long as I can help this team win any single way, it doesn’t really matter to me.”

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