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Monardo: Nationals shake up NL East rankings (Aug. 22)

Joseph Monardo | Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Everyone knew the team in red would reign atop the NL East this year. Before this season’s first pitch, everyone picked the other team in red to occupy the fourth position in the division.

But we all had it wrong.

The Washington Nationals, expected to finish in the bottom half of their division before the 2012 season, sit securely in first place and own baseball’s best record. Meanwhile, the mighty Philadelphia Phillies have disappointed everyone who picked them to finish first in the NL East before the season by falling to fourth place, 19 games out of the pennant position and on the wrong side of .500 by nine games.

Read that paragraph again, because if you or anyone else try to fool yourself into thinking you saw this coming, I would argue you didn’t. Nobody did. I sure didn’t. Even the experts got this one wrong.

Before the season, Baseball Prospectus picked the Nationals to finish fourth in the NL East. Sports Illustrated pegged Washington as the division’s third-place team. ESPN, in this year’s inaugural edition of their weekly power ranking, put the Nationals at fourth in the division and as the 16th-best team in baseball.

It is not that we couldn’t have believed the Nationals would be good this year. With young arms as talented as Steven Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman and Gio Gonzalez in the rotation and spectacled studs like Tyler Clippard in the bullpen, the Nationals pitching staff is getting it done on talent, not luck. Washington, D.C.’s team is just as well stocked on offense. Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse have the corner positions locked down and names like Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper provide serious star power in the outfield. Even though Morse and Werth have both missed time due to injury, the Nationals have exceeded any reasonable expectations of success.

So we knew Washington could be good, but not this good.

Equally as stunning as the meteoric rise by the team from our nation’s capital is the incredible demise of the team from our nation’s former capital. Philadelphia has been downright dreadful, and there is no other way to put it. For a team spending over $170 million this season, the Phillies are doing an awfully good impression of the Houston Astros.

Of their incredibly rich starting staff, only Cole Hamels is having a standout season at 14-6 with an ERA under 3. Meanwhile, Cliff Lee (2-7, 3.83 ERA) and Roy Halladay (7-7, 3.95) have struggled to get wins while coupled with a faltering offense.

Currently leading that Philadelphia offense in four major categories is outfielder Hunter Pence, who left the team more than 20 days ago. Despite landing in San Francisco after a July 31 trade, Pence still leads his old team in batting average (.271), home runs (17), RBI (59) and OBP (.336). By sending outfielder Shane Victorino to the Dodgers on the same day as Pence’s departure, the Phillies officially stumbled out of the playoff hunt. Marking one more low point in the Phillies’ season, the Philly phans put an end to the 257 consecutive-games sellout streak by failing to fill the stadium during an Aug. 6 meeting with the Atlanta Braves.

Granted, with injuries to Ryan Howard and Chase Utley and an aging team overall, the Phillies’ prospects for this season looked slightly bleaker than last year’s MLB-best 102 wins.

So we knew Philadelphia could be bad, but not this bad.
Philadelphia failed to meet expectations, but perhaps the expectations were too generous. With names like Hamels, Halladay, Lee, Papelbon, Rollins, Pence, Utley, Howard, Victorino and more, baseball fans begin counting the wins in their heads. Clearly, for this year at least, all those names don’t carry with them the amount production normally associated with them.

On the other side of the spectrum is the youth-powered uprising in Washington. At the beginning of the season, Bryce Harper was a spoiled minor-leaguer who blew kisses at pitchers and grew ugly mustaches. Steven Strasburg was a fragile youngster coming off serious surgery. Clippard was a setup man, and Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond were little more than nobodies with some promise. However, all of them produced at a level far above the expected amount.

One team’s players played well and found ways to produce when teammates went down with injuries, the other’s did not.

As the season nears its final month, a team from the NL East once again leads the majors in wins and figures to compete for the World Series. The team has a power-hitting first baseman, three aces, a strong closer and a superstar first outfielder. But for once, it’s not the Phillies.

The Nationals have arrived, and the Phillies were nice enough to make room at the top.

Contact Joseph Monardo at jmonardo@nd.edu

The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.