Neil Weinberg is the Founder of New English D and a writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.
It was Thursday, August 8th and the Nationals were 54-60. A team that nearly everyone had pegged for a deep October run was six games under .500 and nine games back of the second wild card spot. The season was effectively over. The only cover they had was that the Blue Jays and Angels had both also underperformed big expectations in a big way. And then, everything changed.
They swept the Phillies in convincing fashion and took two of three from the Giants. They hit the road 59-61, but lost three of four. It was Tuesday, August 20th and the Nationals got to the ballpark 60-64. Four games under .500.
They would win 18 of their next 23 and enter Saturday’s action 4.5 games back of the Reds for the second wild card spot. They have two left against the Phillies this weekend and then finish with Atlanta, Miami, St. Louis, and Arizona. Fifteen games left, 4.5 games to gain.
It might look like too little too late. Entering Friday, FanGraphs gave them a 3.1% chance to make the wild card game. Baseball Prospectus is less optimistic at 2.1%. If we played the last two weeks of the season 100 times, the Nationals might make the playoffs three times.
It’s unlikely. It won’t happen. But it did, just two years ago. The Cardinals caught the Braves in 2011 down 4.5 games with only 13 to play. It’s wrong to think that just because something happened recently that it will happen again, but to gain 4.5 games in two weeks isn’t one in a million. It’s more like one in fifty. And one in fifty happens.
The Nationals are trying to make believers out of all of us who believed five months ago and have long since given up hope. In the previous thirty days entering Friday, the Nationals’ position players were hitting .291/.358/.478 which was good for an MLB best 130 wRC+.
Ryan Zimmerman had a 174 wRC+ in that span. Jayson Werth (167), Bryce Harper (155), and Denard Span (145) weren’t that far behind. The pitching hasn’t been uniformly great, but Gio Gonzalez had a 2.81 ERA and 3.27 FIP in 32 innings. Tanner Roark, whom you probably haven’t heard much about, made two starts and six other appearances during that span totaling 28.2 IP with a 1.57 ERA and 2.14 FIP.
The Nationals, with all of their expectations, couldn’t hit in the first half. They were 6% worse than league average at the plate through the All-Star Break. Since the break, no team’s position players have hit better. These are the Nationals we thought we’d see in April. They just showed up in August.
The clock is ticking and the schedule is dwindling. If they had 40 games, this would feel more like a formality than a stretch but it’s a lot easier to believe in a team that’s playing well when you thought they would play well all along.
They have the talent to win more games than anyone else in the season’s final fortnight. They’ve won their last seven and 24 of their last 33. The bats are making up for lost time and if their staff is clicking on all cylinders, only a few others are on the same level.
The rational part of your brain, the part that plays the odds, tells you the Nationals are still going to come up short. The math doesn’t look good. If the Reds go 7-7 to close it out, the Nationals need to go 12-3 just to tie. It doesn’t add up.
But think back to April. How much would it have surprised you if the Nationals won 12 of their first 15 and the Reds split their first 14? The Reds were 5-7 from August 23 to September 4 while the Nationals were firing on all cylinders.
The Reds have two left against Milwaukee this weekend and six against the Astros and Mets. But they also have six games against the Pirates who have everything on the line. The only team the Nationals have left with anything to play for is the Cardinals. The schedule favors Washington, barely.
It’s a lot of ground to cover but the Nationals are playing great baseball. They’ve been the best offensive team in baseball for the last two months and have been even better over the last thirty days. The pitching staff has room to be better and the Reds have weaknesses.
This is a lesson in updating your beliefs. Most of us wouldn’t have been surprised about the Nationals outplaying the Reds by five games in April, but now that we’ve seen five months of baseball suddenly it seems impossible. But it was the first three months that belied the Nationals’ ability. The Nationals we’ve seen lately are the Nationals we thought we’d see all along.
I think they’ll do their part and win at least 10 of their final 15. The question is the Reds. The 2011 Cardinals and Rays needed the teams they were chasing to stumble at the end. It isn’t very likely to happen again.
But like a good captain, I’m willing to go down with the ship. I picked the Nationals to make the World Series way back in March and insisted they’d play better all along. Just as I was losing faith, they’ve delivered.
Fool’s Gold? Maybe. Probably. Almost definitely. The math doesn’t work.
But three Sundays ago, on August 25th, the Nationals were 8.5 back of the Reds. In three weeks, they’ve trimmed four games. In two weeks, can they trim the rest? That’s what we’re all waiting to find out.
Ninety-seven times out of 100, I play the odds. Almost everything I write is heavily grounded in data and rational analysis – some would say, to a fault. This time, I’m taking the Nationals. I think they’re the better team. This is about the ticking clock and I think they’ll get in under the wire.