It happens all the time in sports. There are certain players that simply seem to play their best against one particular team. Nationals fans can certainly attest to the head-scratching numbers put up by Andrew McCutchen or Hanley Ramirez against their team over the years. But through the first four of six matchups between the Nationals and San Francisco Giants this year, something truly inexplicable has happened. Washington has thoroughly dominated San Francisco, specifically their starting rotation, considered by many as the Giants most obvious strength.
The Giants staff is a lot like the Nats – they don’t often have bad days, and even when they do, they manage to limit the damage. But for whatever reason, Washington has had San Francisco’s number this year. Ryan Vogelsong, who had not allowed more than four runs in a game all season, was tagged for nine (eight earned) in just 2.2 innings of work on Monday night. He had not thrown less than 6.0 innings in a start all year long, and was coming off a 7.0-inning, three-hit masterpiece in a win over the Cardinals. Even more ludicrous, he had allowed just 12 earned runs at home all season before last night’s romp.
Meanwhile, the next two starters in this series – Madison Bumgarner and Tim Lincecum – each had their worst outings of the season when the teams met earlier this year in D.C. Bumgarner allowed seven earned in that series opener and Lincecum was tagged for eight runs (seven earned) as he did not escape the fourth inning. In fact, including the series finale in which they came back against Matt Cain and walked off in the bottom of the ninth, the Nats have outscored the Giants 38-14 over their four matchups this year.
There’s almost no rational way to explain it. Of course, the Nationals know they’ll have to be at their best again the next two days as they face Bumgarner and Lincecum. They will counter with new NL ERA leader Jordan Zimmermann (who took over the top spot after Vogelsong’s outing Monday night) and Stephen Strasburg, both coming off dominant performances against the Astros and Diamondbacks, respectively.
That task must look even more daunting for the Giants when you consider the following: the Washington offense has scored more runs since the All-Star break than any team in baseball. On Monday night, the Nationals leap-frogged both the Cardinals and Yankees and now possess the game’s biggest run differential, having scored 108 times more than their opponents. They have won nine of their last 10 and 13 of 15 on the road, where they are 40-22, a full seven wins more than the next closest teams in the majors (Reds and Yankees, 33).
But the Nationals stand at a historic crossroads as they enter play on Tuesday. It marks the first time this season that they have been as many as 5.5 games ahead in the National League East. That separation also matches the most that the 2005 team ever approached, after a 5-4 win on July 3 at Wrigley Field left them at 50-31. Of course, we are five big weeks later in the season and this edition of the Nationals sits a full 28 games over .500 at 72-44.
Nevertheless, in a season full of milestones, this is one of the biggest yet, as ultimately, it is the only one that really matters when it comes to determining just how long the Nationals will be playing baseball this year. If they can continue to perform as they have against a playoff caliber team in the Giants, they may find themselves in truly uncharted territory.