We are still at the point in the season where a single series can change a team’s outlook. No series exemplified this better than the Nationals and the Rockies this weekend. When it began Washington was 19-15, tied atop the NL Wild Card Standings. The Rockies, in typical early season fashion, sat below .500, 16-17, though just 2.5 games out of the Wild Card race.
A Nationals win in the opener on Thursday placed them in the Wild Card lead alone and put the Rockies 3.5 games out. That 3.5 games might be a bit misleading, because it’s difficult for any team to create real separation at this point. Houston, owner of the NL’s worst record, was just 6.5 games out heading into play on Friday. In just two days, however, the scene changed a bit.
After a rainout on Friday the they played two on Saturday, and the Rockies pounced. Only the Nats’ best hitters, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn, could put across anything against Ubaldo Jimenez, who made life easy for the Rockies offense.Livan Hernandez has impressed to this point, but even the three runs he surrendered were too many. Add in a Brian Bruney meltdown and it’s an easy Rockies win. In the nightcap the Rockies rode the return of Jason Hammel, who allowed just three runs and struck out seven in seven innings, to a 4-3 victory.
On Sunday the Rockies got another return, this time from Jeff Francis. He captured headlines this morning after a seven-inning, one-run performance that included six strikeouts. Scott Olsen went toe-to-toe with him, allowing just one run in 6.2 IP, but Tyler Clippard, while preventing two inherited runners from scoring, couldn’t keep the Rockies off the board in the eighth. Manny Corpas prevented the him from Clipping another win.
The Wild Card standings, of course, look a bit different this morning. San Francisco sits alone atop them, while Washington sits two games out. Colorado, now above .500, is just a half game behind them. Again, this is not surprising at this point in the season. A mild winning or losing streak can change a team’s outlook. Still, it appears as though Washington and Colorado are two teams headed in opposite directions.
Nationals: A realistic chance, or playing over their heads?
The Nationals certainly impressed with their 13-10 April record. After a season in which they held the league’s worst record and an off-season in which they made few roster upgrades, I’m not sure anyone could have expected such a performance from them. A few unexpected performances — particularly those by Ivan Rodriguez and Livan Hernandez — helped the team perform above their true talent level.
As Steven at Fire Jim Bowden noted on May 1, plenty of bad teams have posted winning records in April. We needn’t look further than last season to see the Pirates, who finished at 62-99, and the Royals, who finished at 65-97, with April records above .500. The Nationals could certainly fall into this group, as their 100 runs scored against 108 runs against suggests a decent stream of luck in the first month. But will they be 90-loss bad?
That could depend on how they deploy their reinforcements. They’ve already taken a step by removing Bruney from the bullpen and replacing him with Drew Storen. While Storen’s overall impact won’t be overwhelming — he might throw 50 innings out of the bullpen the rest of the way — his presence should help the Nats avoid the late inning meltdowns to which Bruney was prone. With Clippard, Matt Capps, Sean Burnett, and now Storen in the pen, the Nats figure to blow fewer games in the later innings. They could benefit even further if Tyler Walker cuts down on the home runs.
They will also call on Stephen Strasburg within the next few weeks. While it’s not likely that he dominates out of the gate, he’ll still represent an improvement in the rotation. Only one Nats starter, Scott Olsen, strikes out opposing hitters at an acceptable rate, so adding Strasburg’s strikeout stuff will only help. Add to that the possible return and the possible effectiveness of Chien-Ming Wang, and maybe the Nats have something going.
In May the Nats have won seven and lost eight. Even if they keep that pace throughout the season, they still have those 13 April wins. That means a 78-win season, which has to be considered a victory at this point. That’s the upside. The downside is that each day we’re likely to see them slipping down the Wild Card standings. A surprise run isn’t out of the question, of course, but given the team’s current run differential I wouldn’t think it likely.
Rockies: Why are they so bad in April?
During the past four seasons, the Rockies have played horribly in April, a 40-57 record. Yet in two of those seasons they made the playoffs, and still have a good chance to make that three this season. Again, they just boosted themselves over the .500 hump, and if past seasons are any indication they should be just fine going forward. That’s not just because of past results, but also because of where the team currently stands.
The return of Jeff Francis stands to upgrade the Rockies’ rotation, as will the eventual return of Jorge De La Rosa. One the whole pitching hasn’t been a problem, as the Rockies have allowed the fifth fewest runs per game in the NL. Adding Francis and De La Rosa to the rotation, however, should help them prevent opponents from putting up crooked numbers, as they have a few times this season. That should help them produce a record more in line with their run differential. The return of Huston Street, eventually, should greatly help the bullpen, which has seemingly performed above its head so far this season.
With improved pitching and a solid offense, the Rockies appear to be headed up in the standings. With a questionable pitching staff the Nats appear headed down. Will mid-season adjustments and reinforcements from the minors change either of their outlooks? I guess only time will…ah, forget it.