Surging Nationals playing up to expectations
Remember when the 2014 Nationals, winners of 10 in a row, were disappointments? That was a long time ago.
The Nats have now won 10 in a row and five of their last six in walk-off fashion. As a consequence, Washington has pushed its lead in the NL East to a sturdy 7 1/2 games over the Braves. Such a lead at this reasonably late hour means that the Nats have better than a 98 percent chance of winning the flag back from the Braves.
All of that bring us to this, which is how your four CBSSports.com MLB scribes, prior to the start of the regular season, saw the NL East playing out in 2014 ...
I present the above image not to trumpet our powers of NL East soothsaying. Rather, it's to show the consensus writ small. Even though the Braves were coming off a division title and 96 wins in 2013, most observers not invested in the outcome expected the Nats -- who barged to 98 wins in 2012 -- to regress in a positive direction and reclaim the East. Given that the Braves endured an absurd run of spring pitching injuries and given that the Nats had added Doug Fister to the fold without compromising the big-league roster certainly reinforced those opinions.
However, it took a while for us to get to this point and for expectations to be realized, at least to the current pronounced extent. After all, the Nats at no point until Aug. 2 had a lead in the division of more than two games. In fact, this season the Braves have spent 94 days in first place to the Nationals' 81 (although Washington's tally will necessarily grow in the coming days).
This all serves as a reminder that the MLB season is a snaking, meandering path, not a straight line from expectations stated to expectations realized or squelched. Rare is the wire-to-wire division champ. Considering the breadth of the Braves' early injury problems, I think many of us expected the Nats to seize an early lead and methodically build upon it. Obviously, that hasn't happened. However, the Braves' post-April mediocrity (they're seven games under .500 since May 1) in tandem with the Nationals' recent surge (15-5 in August) has put us where we expected to be, albeit via a less assured route.
So the Nats have powered through significant injuries to Fister, Gio Gonzalez, Bryce Harper, Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman (still ongoing in Zimmerman's case), and here they are with a healthy division lead and the second-best run differential in baseball (+102). They've been a bit lucky when it comes to sequencing their hits, but even by that measure just the Angels and Athletics have been better this season.
There's still time for the Braves to pull off a minor miracle, but now the Nats are looking like the Nats we expected to see. It's taken a while, but here they are. Just like we thought they'd be.