Rays of Hope

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This is a story about a young, exciting team, built from the ground up through great drafts. It is a story about a dominating pitching staff helping lead the way through one of baseball’s toughest divisions. It is a tale of a team that endured injuries to its top outfielder, its franchise third baseman and its closer, yet found a way to keep winning games. It is about a franchise that has never enjoyed a season above .500, but suddenly found itself at 38-26 through its first 64 games, with a reason to believe it could look forward to exciting September – and possibly October – baseball.

This is a story about the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays.

Stephen Strasburg has led the game’s best pitching staff.

If the themes sound familiar, well, they should. The parallels between this year’s Nationals team and that Rays squad that shocked the baseball world by winning 97 games and the American League East crown, eventually going all the way to the World Series, are astounding.

To start, there are number one overall picks – David Price and Stephen Strasburg – lighting up radar guns. While Price did not make his debut until late in the season, the staff was led by James Shields, Matt Garza and Scott Kazmir, all 26 or younger. Similarly, the Nationals have their rotation of Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson behind Strasburg, with Jackson being the elder statesman at 28. Oh, by the way, where do you suppose Jackson was four years ago, when he was just 24? Sharing the Rays team lead in wins with Shields, as the fourth member of that 2008 rotation.

Tampa Bay also turned in by far the best year the franchise had ever seen without a single player, starter or reserve, batting over .300, finishing 13th out of 14 in the American League in hitting. But great pitching can help make up for a lot. Aside from the aforementioned starters, they also had great bullpen pitching, led by Grant Balfour (6-2, 1.54 in 51 appearances), Chad Bradford (1-0, 1.42 in 21 appearances) and J.P. Howell (6-1, 2.22 in 64 appearances). As we discussed when the homestand began, the trio of Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard and Craig Stammen have combined for a 1.65 ERA over their first 87.2 innings pitched this season, holding down the fort until closer Drew Storen returns.

Adam LaRoche has stood alone as the Nationals top power threat.

The Rays survived the gauntlet of the AL East with just one 30-home run hitter, first baseman Carlos Pena, who hit 31. The Nationals top power threat so far has been first baseman Adam LaRoche, who is quietly having a terrific comeback season after spending most of last year on the Disabled List. LaRoche launched his 12th home run of the season Sunday, putting him right on pace for 30 this season.

Then there are the scintillating rookies – Evan Longoria and Bryce Harper – that have energized the fan base, and given each franchise a face recognized around the baseball world. Buoyed by that national support, the Rays had three players selected to the All-Star Game that July, the most the franchise had ever sent to the Mid-summer Classic. The third and final to go (joining Kazmir and catcher Dioner Navarro) was Longoria, who won the MLB Final Vote campaign. With Strasburg and Gonzalez seeming like strong candidates from the rotation, might Final Vote history repeat itself, giving Washington three All-Stars in 2012?

If the Nationals needed any consolation after one of the toughest weekends of the season, they need only look into the opposing dugout, at a franchise that has become the model after which many wish they could mold themselves. The Rays have averaged 92 wins each of the last four years, led by that core of young players and a strong pitching staff. If they can do it, why can’t the Nationals?

So, is this a story about the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays, or is it a story about the 2012 Washington Nationals?

Yes.

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