And they’re back! First 18-gamer of 2017 #Nats

My 18-game posts have a long and sordid history.  For those who are new to this rodeo, check out the first few paragraphs of last year’s first 18-gamer for an explanation of what these posts are all about.  And for links to previous 18-gamers, click here.

Last year, the Nats started hot — 14-4 after the first 18 games. This year, with a big assist from sweeps of the Braves and the Mets in the last week of the set, we’re 13-5 and led the NL East by three games over the Marlins.  A great way to start the season to be sure.   Average just 10-8 in each of the remaining 18-game sets and we’ve got 93 wins and a likely playoff berth, if not an NL East crown.  But that’s a long way off.  So let’s take a closer look at a very promising start to the season.

First, an overview.  The bats have most definitely gotten off to a hot start.

The first thing to note is that the Nats have yet to face a left-handed starter.  That’s awfully unusual for an 18 game set.  The team OPS is 55 points higher than after the first 18 game set last year, when the Nats won 14 games.  I suppose we’ll find out whether that’s related to not having had to face a lefty yet.  Twenty-four homers in the first 18 games is a great start too.  That’s a 216 homers for the season pace, and April is a cool month when the balls aren’t yet flying. Last year, we hit 203 homers for the year, 4th in the National League.

As for the pitching, it’s really been quite good so far if we’re talking about the starters.

Check out the game scores in this table of the Nats’ starting pitchers.  In 14 of the 18 games, it was 59 or over.  Our opponent’s starters reached that level in only four games.  Nats starters had 16 Quality Starts in the 18 games.  Keep that up and this team is going to be very hard to beat.

Opening Day. Nats.  Bryce Harper. Don’t tell me you didn’t expect it:

Oh wait, sorry.  That was Opening Day in 2013, 2015, and 2016!  It’s 2017, and now we have Statcast:

The game was actually won by another homer — Adam Lind‘s first swing as a Nat.

Could use a little work on his postgame interview skills (maybe Murph gives lessons?), but what a debut for his new team.

The first series introduced Nats fans to another new Adam on the team — Adam Eaton.

Quite an addition at the top of the order.  With Trea Turner‘s injury just five games into the season, Eaton was a key to the Nat’s offense in this opening set, hitting .284, stealing three bags, and scoring 16 runs.  TTO’s return is welcome, but it looks like Eaton isn’t going to be hitting 6th anytime soon. And that’s a good thing.

The next two games introduced us to a bullpen that, to put it charitably, was not quite ready for primetime.  First, Kelley, Solis, Treinen, and Blanton combined to squander a very good first outing from Gio, and the Nats lost the third game of the opening set with the Marlins in ten innings by the score of 4-3.   Then, in the first game of a series in Philadelphia, Treinen very nearly blew his second save in a row, but managed to contain the Phillies’ 9th inning rally and get his third save in a  7-6 victory. Unfortunately, it would be his last for the forseeable future.

The final two games of the Phillies series are perhaps better forgotten, but Saturday night’s game, like a car crash, is hard to turn away from.  It will forever be remembered by Nats fans as “the Guthrie game.”  Brought up for a spot start so that Joe Ross could remain in AAA for another 10 days, Guthrie got only 2 outs in the first inning and gave up 10 runs.  The Nats’ pitching staff’s overall ERA won’t recover for months. (The six earned runs given up by the pen later in the game won’t help either.)   Even more amazing than his own 135.00 ERA after the game is the fact that Guthrie’s career ERA of 4.37 after 305 appearances and 272 starts rose to 4.42 after that game.  His 273rd career start may very well be his last.  Ouch.

The Twitterverse had a field day with the outing and provided some needed comic relief:

But enough of that. The Phillies won on Sunday as well, in a walkoff after Zim tied the game with a pinch hit 3-run homer with two outs in the top of the 9th.
Koda Glover lost this one and many fans wondered if our bullpen would ever again pitch a clean inning.

What’s the best way to get the bad taste of a blowout and a walk-off loss out of your mouth? How about a couple of laughers against a proud team enduring a tough start to the season. The Nats returned home for a series against the Cardinals and the bats came alive. In the first game, they exploded for 14 runs on 19 hits, and not a single home run. In the second, Wieters and Werth connected and Daniel Murphy had himself a night:

After losing the final game of the Cardinals series, the Nats welcomed the Phillies to town and returned the walk-off favor — twice, with Bryce Harper serving notice that he is truly one of the most dynamic players in baseball.  Friday night he scored from first in the bottom of the 10th on Murph’s opposite field double. Bryce was simply not to be denied on this play:

And then on Sunday, he gave us one of the most exciting moments at Nats Park since Jayson Werth‘s walkoff in Game 4.  I would guess that anyone reading this has seen the replay of Bryce’s walkoff winner in the bottom of the 9th, maybe more than once.  So how about some in person video to give you the sense of what it was like in Nats Park?  Kudos to the fans behind the cameras, I mean phones:

Listen carefully to the narrator of this last one as the video starts and you’ll hear words he’d probably like to have back — “I’d rather have Daniel Murphy up.”  That’s so 2016.

At the risk of overkill, it’s probably worth pausing here to talk about one Bryce Harper.  You might recall that he had a pretty good April last year too.  Actually, a spectacular April.  Here’s his stat line after the first 18 games in 2016.

Phenomenal.   Can it get any better than that?  Well, of course it can.  We’re talking about Bryce Harper here.
Not nearly as impressive a base stealer.  A few more strikeouts.  And yes, an unsustainable BABIP.  But a 1.340 OPS after 18 games?  Oh my goodness. And almost twice as many walks as in last year’s first 18.

Bryce’s heroics in the Philly series seemed to ignite the team as it headed out on the first long road trip of the season. The first stop was Atlanta to meet up with the red hot Braves, winners of five straight games, including four in their fancy new ballpark, SunTrust Park. In fact, before the Nats came to town, the Braves had yet to lose in the new park.

That didn’t last long. First, Max dissected them with his best outing of the year so far — 7 innings, no runs, two hits, seven Ks, all in spite of an unconscionably bad performance behind the plate by the one, the only, CB Bucknor:

Shawn Kelley got his first save of the year after yet another failed attempt by Blake Treinen. And because of Bucknor, he had to strike out the last better twice to do it.

Then came another 14-run explosion, and another two homer night for Bryce. Ho hum. MLB’s Twitter account nicely summed up Bryce’s day.

Even CB Bucknor couldn’t mess up his day.

And then to complete the sweep, a well played 3-2 victory featuring 10 Ks by Stephen Strasburg (watch this video — nasty!), a game winning two-run bomb by Zim, a save by newly anointed closer Shawn Kelley, and some stellar defense:

Before moving on to the Nats last series of the set, it’s worth noting the amazing resurrection of Ryan Zimmerman.  Even his most stalwart defenders and boosters as the season started, and I will admit I was not one of them, could not have predicted this stat line in the first 18 games:

Yes, his BABIP, like Harper’s, is unsustainable.  But Ryan Zimmerman certainly seems to be back.  May he stay healthy and keep providing key hits and solid protection for Bryce and, when he bats fifth, Murph. He’s been an absolute force so far, second in the majors in hitting (after Harper), and fourth in OPS as of Monday morning.   I’d like nothing more than to track his performance all year long and endure endless taunts and “I told you so’s” from those who had more faith in him than I had.

And so we come to the sweet sweep of the New York Mets to close out the first 18 games.  Lots of highlights but given the already ridiculous length of this post, it seems fitting to just let former-Met Daniel Murphy take us out.  He’s had a great start to the season, picking up right where he left off, though he’s been completely overshadowed by Bryce and Zim. Still, these numbers are not too shabby:

We’ll take a .900 OPS from Murph this year, right?  Especially if he gets big hits like this one:

The amazing thing about this set is that the Nats were 13-5 with almost no contribution from TTO, with only a glimpse of the player who could be TTB, and with a shaky if not scary bullpen.  Imagine what this team can do when it’s clicking on all cylinders.

Last year’s great start was followed by mediocre 9-9 performance, as Bryce came back to earth with a vengeance. Can this year’s team do better in the second 18?  Stay tuned.

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