Inside Look: Nationals

About a month ago, Washington walked into Flushing and beat the Mets two out of three — a series that ended with Livan Hernandez outdueling Johan Santana. At the time, many people had preconceived notions about each team’s prospects — most predicting a bleak season in the basement.

Something surprising has happened since: the Mets are Nationals are neck and neck at the top of the NL East. How? Why? Will it continue?

Who knows? I sure don’t. But we will check in again with fellow ESPN SweetSpot blogger Harper Gordek of Nationals Baseball to find out what has been sparking that team in DC.

1. The last time we did this, we were discussing how the Nats and Mets would likely be taking turns in the NL East cellar. However we now find them both fighting for the right to second place. Is this surprising to you, do you see it continuing over the long-term, and what have been the keys to the Nats’ recent success?

It’s a bit surprising, but it could also continue long term. Neither Florida nor Atlanta have shown me anything that makes me think they are suddenly going to play well enough to pull away with 2nd place. The Nats have come this far with a little bit of luck (they are 7-3 in one run games) but they’ve had a good deal of decent starts and their bullpen in high leverage situations has been incredible. Can it last? Depends on what you think of Livan, Olsen, Clippard, and Capps.

2. Your analysis of Ian Desmond was dead-on. If the Nats keep rolling, will it partly be because Desmond is still in the lineup or because a veteran such as Cristian Guzman or Adam Kennedy is taking time away from him?

Desmond. Kennedy could play better and Guzman could… well he could keep slapping singles and nothing else, but neither of them are game changers. They are at best slightly below average offensive players. Desmond however could be something better than that and more importantly because he’s been competent so far, he is not going to be losing starting time to either of these guys anytime soon.

3. A month ago, one might have surmised that John Lannan, Jason Marquis, and Jason Bergmann would have key roles on the mound for the Nats. Instead, those three have had difficulties while Livan Hernandez, Tyler Clippard, and Scott Olsen seem to be a big part of the recent success. Based on what you saw in spring training from those six, does this surprise you?

I don’t buy anything I see in spring. That being said, the biggest surprise of all these was Marquis injury. While one might have thought he’d regress, no one expected complete worthlessness and then being out forever. Right behind that is Livan’s incredible start. We all know Livan is capable of these types of starts occasionally, but to put this many together in a row is highly unexpected. Olsen’s complete turn around was also pretty shocking, especially after his first two starts. He can pitch this well but one would think he would slowly get back to it, not suddenly turn it on. The rest… they weren’t surprising in failure or success.

4. Olsen in particular is intriguing, based on his talent and previous success. Is he finally maturing and “putting it all together” or is this a mere hot streak for the big lefty?

It’s very tempting to go with “putting it all together”. His strikeouts are back up, he’s not giving up extra-base-hits nor walking people. Everything is working right now. If you are looking for something that says maybe the Mets can get to him — he hasn’t faced a good offensive team in a while and he finished April 2009 with the same sort of 3-game cruising, though not this good.

5. On paper, the Nats’ bullpen is looking promising — particularly thanks to Clippard, Matt Capps, and Sean Burnett. But it’s early and I’m curious about how the relief corps is being managed by Jim Riggleman; is he managing the bullpen for a full season’s workload or as if every day is the 7th Game of the World Series?

The latter. Clippard especially has been worked hard and it might be starting to show. Then again, its probably the right way to use a bullpen, especially if you aren’t expecting a playoff run. You can find pitchers to pitch a good inning or two fairly easily. Most guys can handle at least a season of hard riding and when one guy goes down, if your team is built right, there should be another to take his place.

6. We can’t ignore the subject of Stephen Strasburg — and he’s making it impossible to be ignored. If the Nats continue to hang around the top of the division, his promotion is inevitable. Does that concern you in any way, or do you think it would be good for him to be in a position to impact a pennant race right now?

No concern, he should be up at some point this year and he’s going to have an innings limit. I guess if the Nats are fighting for a Wild Card come September that could be an issue, but I don’t see them doing that.

Stranger things have happened! Thanks again to Harper Gordek, whose Nationals Baseball gives you the daily scoop on the Washington Nationals baseball team.


Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.