Five Takeaways from the Nationals/Cardinals Series

Washington did not enter the St. Louis series on a high note. The offense hadn’t plated a run in 20-ish innings and the club had just been swept by the rebuilding Phillies (although, in fairness to Philadelphia, that club looks an awful lot better than many expected them to be). The Nationals’ struggles at Busch are well documented: prior to this sweep, the club was 6-24 there. There was reason to think the Nats might fade quickly. And then they won three, on the road, against a team notoriously difficult to beat at home – well, now what?

The Nationals pitching staff is a battering ram – and now this includes the bullpen, too.

Here’s quick look at the Nats’ starting rotation:

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I would specifically call attention to the fielding-independent numbers. Joe Ross, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark all see upticks – to numbers that are still below 3.00! In other words, even if we subtract the help these guys get from the defense, these pitchers are all throwing up elite numbers, performance you expect from top-of-the-rotation arms, not third or fourth starters, let alone fifth guys. There’s no let-up. Ross, 23, is poised to become a superstar. Gonzalez has always had stuff, but has found consistency.

In Stephen Strasburg‘s case, his fielding-independent ERA is better than his ERA; meaning that he is not getting as much help from his defense, or is maybe getting unluckier on batted balls in play. His numbers are pretty unhittable as is, but he could actually get less hittable.

Max Scherzer, the supposed ace, has actually been the worst of the group through the first month-plus. He’d been having all kinds of mechanical problems with his release point or arm extension or, well, whatever. I must note that even in Max’s bad starts, the Nationals were still playing winnable games; Max’s floor is very high which is why he gets paid what he does. But getting him turned around was a task with increasing urgency. So then he came out Sunday and threw seven innings of 9 punchouts and zero walks against the likes of Matt CarpenterStephen Piscotty, Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina. His ability to command his fastball and throw first-pitch strikes – which he had not done well at all of late – meant that whatever adjustments he’d made had showed signs of working.

Entering 2016 the Nationals bullpen was a big question mark. No, the Nationals have not suddenly become the Yankees or the Royals, but unlike in 2015, the ‘pen looks like a value-adding proposition. Lefty Felipe Rivero and righty Blake Treinen remain the twin talents with the most upside, while also remaining very much works-in-progress. Manager Dusty Baker loves to mix and match with them ahead of closer Jonathan Papelbon. Both have high-90s fastballs and devastating second or third pitches; Treinen has a sinker and slider, Rivero comes with a change-up and curveball.

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And one more table:

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So, there’s plenty of room to improve, and all of this comes with the obvious caveat that we’re dealing with a microscopic sample of innings. Trienen has been great in leverage situations, but still has severe splits, and Rivero fares far worse in high-leverage situations but has no problem wiping out lefties and righties equally. It’s a puzzle – tantalizing and flawed – and bears watching. Shawn Kelley has been lights-out since a rough first appearance; Papelbon remains effective even if his stuff is declining; Yusmeiro Petit has already proven how valuable an experienced if unspectacular long reliever can be.

The Nationals offense is shaky, but getting better.

Minus outfielder and “igniter” Ben Revere, the club has had to improvise with the lead-off spot. The job has largely fallen to Michael A. Taylor, who has a tremendous speed and power combination and a 29/4 K/BB rate, too. Anthony Rendon has been cool, mostly hitting singles or hard-hit balls that find a fielder (he did lash a double in Sunday’s win, a positive sign for him.) Werth has been cold with occasional signs of power; Ryan Zimmerman is mired in a slump; Danny Espinosa has been generally ineffective. Other than Daniel Murphy and Bryce Harper – who has cooled off himself – it’s been tough going.

Where has Rendon’s power gone? Nowhere, really.

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So, in a variety of peripheral ways, he’s having a nearly identical season to his breakout 2014 campaign, just with a BABIP that’s about 30 points off his career mark (.311) and also about 30 points off the mark he hit in 2014 (.314).

I think we can safely conclude that barring health issues, there are definitely brighter days ahead for Rendon.

Revere will return and give the club a proper lead-off guy. Second baseman Daniel Murphy will keep putting balls in play. Perhaps future shortsotp Trea Turner will make his big league debut as well, giving the Nationals two electric, contact-oriented speedsters in the lineup. The bench – mainly Chris Heisey and Matt den Dekker – has shown both power and the ability to reach base, so even if the Nats’ attack isn’t sexy, it can be effective or at least sufficient.

Harper is a human being, after all.

Heroics and historically brilliant seasons aren’t a given. Of course when the 23-year-old centerpiece of your offense, arguably the best player in the game, seems to launch game-tying or game-winning home runs as a matter of routine, it’s easy to forget this. Harper went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts Sunday. It’s not a shock that he struggled: Carlos Martinez is really good, Kevin Siegrist is really good, Seung-hwan Oh is really good. The Cardinals are, wait for it, a good team. Harper will miss pitches. Yes, he does seem to be chasing things; yes, he does seem to be trying to force the issue a bit. In the end, Harper is going to hit and there’s just not much to see here, other than a reminder of how difficult this game remains even for the best of the best.

Carlos Martinez is really, really good.

For a guy pitching through the flu, he threw a spectacular game. Yes, it imploded at the end, but for most of his six innings, Martinez was mowing down Nats left and right – going up and down in the zone as well as side to side, changing speeds – an 89mph change-up here, a 98mph fastball there – doing everything an ace-like pitcher does. He’s 24. That’s good.

The Cardinals are off, but not by much.

Something isn’t entirely clicking in St. Louis, but other than bad luck and poor timing it’s not clear to me what is wrong. I don’t really think anything is truly wrong, other than the Nationals are evidently a really good team, too.

The Cardinals lineup is deep and talented and can clearly score runs; Carpenter-Piscotty-Holliday-Adams-Molina will do that. Randal Grichuck is a whiff machine this year, which is unfortunate, because he can hit, too. The Mike Leake signing isn’t working out very well and Adam Wainwright is scuffling, but the bullpen remains generally very good and Gonzalez and Jaime Garcia both pitched fantastic or good-enough games, but lost because that happens sometimes. The Cubs appear to be running away with the division at this early stage, but both Pirates and Cardinals are excellent offensive teams with solid pitching and are not to be overlooked.

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