It’s time again for one of those tests the Washington Nationals keep facing this season as they continue to stay above the fray in the National League East, another of those stretches that can distinguish great ball clubs from merely good ones.
The Nats are coming off their best road trip of the season, a 6-0 jaunt through the lower two-fifths of the American League East. In their sweeps of the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays, two of the highest scoring and most powerful teams in baseball, the Nats outscored them 31-16 and outhomered them 10-6. While Michael Morse and Ryan Zimmerman struggle to find their power, Adam LaRoche‘s bat has headed up again, with three homers in that stretch, as has Danny Espinosa‘s with two. Bryce Harper is showing no signs of slumping, with a pair of home runs, several clutch hits and even a key walk against the Reds Sox.
As always, the pitching has been magnificent, with the starters winning five of the games and compiling a 2.34 ERA and the bullpen combining to allow just three earned runs in 18 2/3 innings on the whole trip.
In fact, there has been only one hotter team in baseball over the past 10 games, and those New York Yankees are awaiting the Nats for a key three-game stretch at Nats Park. Aside from their own stellar play, Nats have the Yankees to thanks for their five-game bulge over the Atlanta Braves and new York Mets in the NL East, the most comfortable lead in all of baseball. While the Nats have been sweeping the Sox and Jays, the Yanks have been doing the same to the Mets and Braves by a combined score of 30-13. The Yankees are also the most powerful team in the majors, with 96 homers on the season, including 11 in the past six interleague games.
The three pitchers the Nats will be facing this weekend, Phil Hughes, Andy Pettitte and Ivan Nova, are a combined 2-0 with a 1-86 ERA over the past six games, while the bullpen has allowed just six earned runs in 18 1-3 innings.
With two closely matched teams playing great ball in front of a packed house every game, That Nats will again have thier greatness tested, just as they did against the Dodgers in April and Baltimore in May. They were clearly not ready at Dodger Stadium, and were just short of the then high-flying Orioles at home last month. This series against yet another first place team will tell the Nats just where they are.
At 14 games over .500, the Nats have already passed their high-water mark since moving to Washington in 2005. They are guaranteed to come out of the series with their NL East lead intact. But a series loss could bring them that much closer to the pack and increase the urgency of their games against the NL East once interleague play is over.
But if they can manage a winning series, while the league leading Dodgers play a good Chicago White Sox team, they could, indeed, come out breathing rarefied air.