Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Nationals nicely placed

WHGB11The Washington Nationals have the best record in the National League going into Sunday with 84 wins against 63 losses and it’s possible that some onlookers may not have quite noticed.

It’s a product in part on the differing expectations placed on the team this year compared to the previous two.

The 2012 campaign saw the Nationals playing playoff baseball for the first time since the Expos were shamefully taken away from Monteral and rebranded in Washington in 2005.

Their 98 regular season wins were a giant leap ahead of previous paltry totals, although the back-to-back seasons of 100+ losses in 2008 and 2009 were precisely what allowed them to acquire Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper as number one selections in the subsequent amateur drafts. This not only added two exciting young talents but also changed the whole atmosphere around the club, with the Nationals being picked up by the national media as a team on the rise.

Unfortunately for Washington, the achievement of gaining 98 regular season victories was quickly blown away by a a crushing 3-2 Division Series loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. Going out of the postseason early is always a blow, yet the manner of their defeat made it seem disastrous. They led 6-0 after three innings in the decider and, despite St. Louis’s efforts to chip away at the deficit, everyone in Nationals Park was on their feet heading into the ninth inning with a 7-5 lead waiting to celebrate.

Instead of jumping for joy, Nationals fans ended up drowning in despair as closer Drew Storen – another first round draft pick – went into meltdown and conceded four runs as the Cardinals prevailed 9-7.

An overall terrific season suddenly seemed like a disaster.

The then-manager Davey Johnson’s bullish ‘World Series or bust’ cry heading into 2013 came true in a sense when his team missed out on the playoffs completely last year and created question marks over just how good these players were coming into 2014. The appointment of a rookie manager, Matt Williams, as a replacement for the retired Johnson gave further cause for doubt.

Fans of the Atlanta Braves certainly felt confident about their chances of retaining their NL East crown. The division has produced some entertaining rivalries over the past decade and the latest battle for supremacy between the Braves and Nationals is as good as any before. Part of the needle between the two stems from the national attention on the likes of Strasburg and Harper and a feeling among many Braves fans that their team is unfairly overlooked, or more specifically that Washington get generous coverage that their actual performances don’t deserve.

So far this season only the most-biased Braves fan would deny that their team has been second best. The Nationals have a 9.5 game lead over the Atlanta Braves in the NL East and have earned this cushion without the fanfare that has previously surrounded the team. None of their players have especially gaudy conventional statistics, but what they’ve got this year is a whole assortment of players making good contributions, not least on a pitching staff that is right up there as one of the best in the Majors.

The Nationals were a much-hyped team in 2012 and 2013 and didn’t quite live up to expectations. Maybe this year, with less attention on them, might be the one where they make it all the way to the Fall Classic.

‘Crush’ Davis crashes

Thankfully MLB hasn’t been the subject of many negative news stories of late, the NFL has cornered that particular market among U.S. sports recently, but a drug suspension for a key player on a playoff-bound team is always likely to create a few waves.

In the case of the Baltimore Orioles’ Chris Davis, he has fallen foul of the drug-testers for a relatively minor contravention after testing positive for amphetamines. He even had a medical exemption for using the product, Adderall, prior to this season, so probably will avoid landing firmly in the ‘drug cheat’ class set by public opinion, even though his MLB-leading 53 home runs last season raised an eyebrow or two among the conspiracy theorists.

It’s the timing of the suspension that raises its prominence. A 25-game ban normally makes for a month out of action in MLB terms, but the Orioles only had 17 regular season games left when his ban came into effect on Friday. Baltimore have a comfortable lead in the AL East so his absence will not be felt too badly there; it’s the gap he’ll leave in the first eight playoff games, if they get through the best-of-five Division Series, that will be key.

How big a blow it will be remains to be seen. Davis has had a very disappointing season compared to 2013; however his ability to change a game with one swing of the bat is still there, as shown by his 26 home runs this season, and the Orioles only need him to get hot for a few days to turn a short playoff series around. The question will be whether Davis can contribute much in the second-part of a potential Championship Series after not facing competitive MLB pitching for a considerable length of time.

The Orioles’ all-but-certain AL East title will be a remarkable achievement considering the obstacles they have faced, particularly losing Manny Machado and Matt Wieters to injuries. If they reach the Championship Series, Davis may well find a place on the roster as Baltimore try to find what potential game-changers they’ve got left.

Playoff schedule

As we’re on the playoff theme, the postseason schedule was announced on Thursday.

The two Wild Cards will take place on Tuesday 30 September and Wednesday 1 October and although start times haven’t been announced for any of the games as yet, those two undoubtedly will be played at night in the States and therefore be early morning contests on Wednesday and Thursday for us in the U.K.

As for the World Series, that will start on a Tuesday night this year (so early hours of Wednesday for us), a day earlier than the Wednesday start we’ve become familiar with in recent years. Arguably the main impact from a British perspective is that it means Games Three to Five will be played in the early hours of Saturday, Sunday and Monday for us, which may make it easy to arrange to watch them live than the previous Sunday-to-Tuesday morning sequence.

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