With only 20 games left in the regular season for the Washington Nationals, the team is solidly in first place, 7 games above the Atlanta Braves. All the games that the Nationals have left are against NL East teams, including six against the Braves. So a LOT can still happen, despite the Nationals’ “magic number” to clinch their division being only 14. Still, unless the team completely falls apart, you can expect the Nats to clinch the NL East and move on to post-season baseball.
The Nationals haven’t been playing particularly wonderful baseball lately, having lost 2 of 3 to the last-place Phillies this past weekend. Many of their victories have been come-from-behind wins or walk-offs, which have been stressful for us Nationals fans to watch. The bullpen has given up a lot of runs, the offense isn’t super-consistent, and the biggest problem the Nationals face now is finding a good closer.
Rafael Soriano, who has been the Nationals’ closer all season, has struggled since the All-Star break, blowing 5 saves and earning an ERA of 6.98 since the break. Not only has he been ineffective; his appearances are downright stressful. He’d strike out a batter, walk the next guy, strike out another one, then allow a two-run homer to blow the save. It was like that day in and day out, so Nationals’ manager, Matt Williams, pretty much said enough is enough (in a nice way). So who will the Nationals’ new closer be?
In Sunday’s game against the Phillies, Drew Storen pitched the ninth inning to earn his second save of the season. Storen was the Nationoals’ regular closer in 2012, but after a disappointing outing to eliminate the Nationals in the 2012 NLCS against the Cardinals, Soriano was acquired to supposedly provide a consistent closer so Storen could be used differently out of the bullpen. Well, it worked for a year, since Soriano earned 43 saves, striking out 51 batters in 66 innings. He didn’t have overpowering stuff, but he got the job done. Oh, what a difference a year makes!
Will Storen go back to being the Nationals’ every-day closer? They better figure that out, because the playoffs is no time to be tinkering with the bullpen. I think Storen genuinely wants to redeem himself after the disappointment in 2012, and he seems to be the only one in the bullpen who currently has lights-out stuff. Yes, Tyler Clippard has been a great set-up man, but that’s where he should stay –I wouldn’t move him to the closer spot because he does tend to make mistakes on occasion, and when he does, the offense usually bails him out. In the ninth inning, that’s not so easy to do.
So what should this series against the Braves bring? The Braves haven’t been hitting, and their closer, Craig Kimbrel, isn’t as unhittable as he was last year. I would like to see the Nationals take 2 of 3 from the Braves before moving on to New York for a four-game series against the Mets (whom they swept last time they played each other). Sit, back, relax with a cold beverage (and some chips and salsa, in my case), and get ready for some exciting baseball in the home stretch. It ain’t over yet!