By: Adam Tenenbaum
As August starts to wind down, the pennant races start to form, as teams fight down the stretch in order to reach October. The Washington Nationals meanwhile find themselves stuck in between contender and pretender, as they have fallen 6.5 back of the seemingly red-hot New York Mets. To make matters worse, they are also 9 games back for the second and final wild card spot in the National League. At 64-63, just barely over .500, it raises the question, Can the Nationals contend in 2015?
The answer is yes, but things will need to change, and change fast if they plan on making a run. First off, pitching, in particular, starting pitching will need to greatly improve. The Nationals have allowed 4.7 runs per game this month, contributing to their 10-16 record in August. They will need Max Scherzer to break out of his recent funk, and pitch like the ace, they acquired him to be. Secondly, their schedule is very favorable down the stretch, in hopes of getting hot. They play just 9 games against contenders in their remaining 35 games, as well as 20 of those games being at home. Their key games will be their remaining six games with the Mets, three at home, and three in New York to end the season. On the offensive side, the team is mostly healthy with the exception of Denard Span, who is likely to miss the remainder of the season, after being put on the DL on Friday for the third time this season. Aside from him, they still have MVP candidate, Bryce Harper, who is enjoying a nice break out season. Michael Taylor figures to get the majority of the playing time in center, in place of Span. The offense will need a solid contributions from veterans like Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman to help shoulder the load with Harper down the stretch. The offense as a whole, averages 4.2 runs per game, and if the pitching can recover from their slump, this team will get hot. Can they catch the Mets?
Similar to the Nationals, the Mets also have a favorable schedule, as they also play nine games against contenders. Their remaining games are exactly even, as they play 17 games at home, and 17 on the road in their last 34 games. The Mets are 18-7 in August, and are due for a bit of regression. One reason is their young pitching. Their pitching has been lights out, but typically young pitching staffs tire out late in the season. The Mets can avoid that fatigue by resting their young starters like Matt Harvey, and Noah Syndergaard, who each are on innings limits. Another reason is the Mets offense, that was once ice-cold to start the season is now red-hot with the additions of Yoenis Cespedes, and the return of injured players Michael Cuddyer and David Wright. While I don’t think they will go ice-cold again, but they will not sustain their current pace of 6.3 runs per game. All in all, if the Nats want to stay in the race, they will need their pitching to step up, and hope the Mets regress enough for them to catch up. Still a little over a month to go, but the Nationals will face an uphill battle if they hope to repeat as division champs in the East.