Heart of the Na­tion­als’ or­der just keeps beat­ing ex­pec­ta­tions

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - THOMAS BOSWELL thomas.boswell@wash­post.com For more by Thomas Boswell, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/boswell.

This past week in Pitts­burgh, Daniel Mur­phy flicked his bat at a lowin­side curve­ball and ap­peared to hit a glanc­ing blow for a fly­ball des­tined to land in the right fielder’s glove. In­stead, he bar­reled the ball per­fectly on the sweet spot, and it fell into a fan’s lap in the sec­ond row of the bleach­ers for a home run.

Later, Ryan Zim­mer­man poked his bat at a low-away change-up and seemed to hit a one-handed blooper over the sec­ond base­man’s head. Yet his bal­ance and tim­ing were so ideal that the ball hit the top of the 21foot right-field wall for a dou­ble.

When you’re hot, you do things you can’t re­peat, can’t ex­plain and don’t want to un­der­stand fully be­cause you’d be scared half to death by the dif­fi­culty and im­prob­a­bil­ity of what you’re ac­com­plish­ing. When you do those deeds in the first quar­ter of the sea­son, the way Zim­mer­man, Mur­phy and Bryce Harper have been for the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als, those early weeks of un­sus­tain­able bril­liance can form the bedrock of what, over the whole sum­mer, be­come

mon­ster ca­reer years.

If they con­tin­ued all year at their paces en­ter­ing Satur­day, Harper would hit .355 with 51 homers and 142 RBI, which might bring him a Triple Crown, like the one Mickey Man­tle won at the same age of 24 with 52 homers, 130 RBI and a .353 av­er­age.

Zim­mer­man would bat .375 with 63 dou­bles, 51 homers and 150 RBI. And poor Mur­phy would have to set­tle for bat­ting .325 with 32 homers and 126 RBI. You would have one of the best Nos. 3-4-5 left-right-left hearts of the or­der in decades.

Of course, they can’t do that. Be­cause they never have be­fore.

Harper’s 2015 MVP sea­son hinted that such a year might hap­pen some­day. And Mur­phy ba­si­cally put up those num­bers last sea­son, when he hit .347 with 25 homers and 104 RBI while fin­ish­ing sec­ond for MVP.

No, Zim­mer­man can’t hit .375. But he did have 33 homers and 110 RBI in 2009.

What Harp, Zim and Murph — the Nats don’t do well on col­or­ful nick­names — have al­ready done, be­sides de­light their fans, is trans­form the first quar­ter of the Nats sea­son and make se­ri­ous prob­lems, which might seem Ra­dio: WJFK (106.7 FM) crush­ing other­wise, look like they might be en­dured, then sur­mounted.

Those three hit­ters — and the syn­ergy they have helped bring to the of­fense, which leads MLB in scor­ing — are the prime rea­son that the Nats are 25-17 and lead the Na­tional League East by six games af­ter their loss Satur­day.

That trio, plus strong springs by starters Max Scherzer, Stephen Stras­burg and Gio Gon­za­lez, have given the Nats time to fig­ure out how to im­prove their so-far aw­ful bullpen. They have let the Nats re­lax while Tan­ner Roark tries to re­claim the move­ment and com­mand of his bread-and-but­ter pitch: that swing-back two-seam fast­ball. No­body’s pan­icked while Joe Ross works out his me­chan­ics in Class AAA.

The Nats, at least for now, can en­joy the half-dozen gold-star de­fen­sive plays by short­stop Trea Turner in the past week and shrug off his .235 bat­ting av­er­age and a cou­ple of re­cent tough er­rors.

Of­fense can for­give more sins than the pope. But it also can lead to delu­sions. No Wash­ing­ton team, in­clud­ing all the Sen­a­tors teams from 1901 to 1971, scored more than the 892 runs of the 1930 Sen­a­tors, who, in a juiced­ball sea­son, had four Hall of Famer hit­ters, plus Buddy Myer, who won a bat­ting ti­tle.

The cur­rent Nats are on pace to score 952 runs. Last year they had just 763. This should be sober­ing, more than en­cour­ag­ing, to those who run the team. In MLB, ev­ery­thing tends to nor­mal­ize. The streak­ers slump, and the slumpers catch fire. But over­all, this cas­cade of Nats runs will slow down, maybe a lot. Don’t wait too long to fix that bullpen, just be­cause a lame NL East helps you look pow­er­ful.

On the other hand, great spring starts by an en­tire unit — like a start­ing ro­ta­tion or the mid­dle of an or­der — can end up defin­ing a team’s whole sea­son. Last May, base­ball ad­mired the Cubs’ ro­ta­tion, but most fans as­sumed that five pitch­ers couldn’t stay healthy and su­perb for an en­tire sea­son. Why, their luck on bat­ting av­er­age on balls in play was in­sane. Surely it would regress. And it has — this year. But not be­fore the Cubs won a World Se­ries.

Last year, the Cubs’ start­ing pitch­ers had a 2.96 ERA. Nextbest, miles be­hind, were the Nats at 3.60. Chicago’s hot pitch­ing start en­er­gized its whole sea­son. This year, with al­most the same ro­ta­tion, the Cubs start­ing ERA ranks 18th (4.47).

Base­ball is the “in­di­vid­ual team game.” The team comes first, but the in­di­vid­ual hit­ter or pitcher per­forms alone for the most part. The team in­flu­ences the in­di­vid­ual — some. But bad Bos­ton teams never kept Ted Williams from be­ing Ted Williams. This team-in­di­vid­ual du­al­ity is a rea­son fans identify in­tensely with in­di­vid­ual play­ers and their base­ball life sto­ries, not just with the whole team.

It would be hard to find three more fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ries, bat­ting in a row, than Harper, who might or might not be the next Man­tle; Zim­mer­man, the vet who looked washed up but may be in the midst of a ca­reer re­birth; and Mur­phy, who has made one of the most amaz­ing jour­ney­man-tostar-hit­ter trans­for­ma­tions ever.

We need a re­al­ity check. What are the sea­sons of these three play­ers most likely to re­sem­ble by Oc­to­ber? Un­til re­cent years, there were few good guesses. Now there are. At MLB.com, dis­guised as Fan­tasy Pro­jec­tions so you’ll look at ’em, base­ball has used ad­vanced-met­ric re­search — on age and re­gres­sion to ca­reer mean as well as ex­tra weight­ing for re­cent years’ per­for­mance — to guessti­mate fi­nal sea­son stats. In­clude the hot or cold stat, then “nor­mal­ize” pro­duc­tion there­after.

That’s good news for the Nats, even though the ad­just­ments im­ply that Zim­mer­man, Mur­phy and Harper will miss 35, 18 and 13 games be­cause of in­juries over the rest of the sea­son though they have missed just six games so far. Pro­jec­tions en­ter­ing Fri­day:

Harper: 146 games, 116 runs, 38 homers, 110 RBI, .315 av­er­age and a 1.042 on-base-plus­slug­ging per­cent­age. If that doesn’t win an­other MVP, it will be close.

Zim­mer­man: 124 games but still with 35 dou­bles, 28 homers, 91 RBI and a .303 av­er­age in 462 at-bats.

The im­pact of this on the Nats could be enor­mous be­cause Zim­mer­man is un­der team con­trol through 2020, when he would still be “only” 35. In­stead of spend­ing $75 mil­lion for a new free agent first base­man, they might al­ready have one. At least in the­ory, that puts money back on the ta­ble to make a long-term of­fer to Harper.

Mur­phy: 142 games, 39 dou­bles, 18 homers, 91 RBI, a .313 av­er­age with an .860 OPS. I’ll take the “over” on this one, thanks.

The Nats have lots of flaws to fix. And ev­ery one of their blaz­ing hit­ters prob­a­bly will have at least one ma­jor slump, more likely a cou­ple.

But ev­ery Nats heart-of-the­o­rder hit­ter prob­a­bly will spend a long sum­mer look­ing at his 200square-foot pic­ture on the cen­ter field score­board — with his of­fen­sive num­bers be­side it — and think­ing, “I’m hav­ing a great sea­son. I could go 0 for next week and barely put a dent in it. Just re­lax. Time to get an­other hit.”

That’s how mon­ster sea­sons are born. One, two or three could be on the way.

Thomas Boswell

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