Nationals can prove they’re for real in brutal upcoming stretch


Should bettors take the Washington Nationals seriously as a profit center and playoff threat?

Sunday afternoon provides a good opportunity to get caught up with news on the Nats while watching the national telecast of their series finale against the Philadelphia Phillies (TBS, 1:05).

You probably know that Washington surged back into the NL East race in days leading up to the All-Star break. That hot run actually dates back more than a month. Washington started the 2019 season 19-31, then finished the first half on a 28-11 tear. Records for all NL East teams in their last 39 games before the break: Nationals 28-11, Braves 25-14, Marlins 17-22, Phillies 17-22, Mets 15-24 — and, as VSiN has documented, the Phillies have been awful when not playing the Mets, going 6-1 vs. the Amazin’s during that span, 11-21 vs. everyone else.

It sure seems as if Washington is a juggernaut once again. With Max Scherzer, who was placed on the IL on Saturday for a back problem he said he isn’t “overly concerned about,” back in Cy Young form, should the Braves be shaking in their boots? Heck, should the Los Angeles Dodgers start worrying about the NL pennant?

Maybe. There’s a big “but” about Washington’s run. The Nationals mostly have been bullying MLB dregs. A seemingly tenacious 10-2 finish came against Miami (6-0), Detroit (2-1) and Kansas City (2-1). Earlier in the 28-11 tear, there were three wins in four games against the Chicago White Sox from the dreadful AL Central, and three more in four games against Miami.

There’s a very real possibility this “hot” run is a schedule illusion rather than playoff-caliber performance. It isn’t hard to look like a playoff team when you’re only facing opponents who don’t care about results.

Even Scherzer’s stats are misleading in that context. Yes, he’s great. But, those well-publicized stats from his past nine starts (0.84 ERA, 94 strikeouts, just nine walks) have come mostly against the bad teams we mentioned. His toughest opponents were Arizona and San Diego. Scherzer still hasn’t faced Atlanta this season. He’s made eight starts against Philadelphia, Miami and the Mets.

The real litmus tests begin July 18. Washington will play Atlanta seven times in the final two weeks of the month, with a home series against the NL favorite Dodgers sandwiched in between.

So, the answers to today’s questions will probably come in that stretch. For now, bettors should seriously consider Washington when affordably priced against non-contenders (or disappointments such as the Phillies). But, investment against top competition shouldn’t be automatic unless the Nats impress against the Braves and Dodgers.

Playoffs? Let’s say the market is at least paying attention. According to William Hill, the Nats have surged to 5/1 to win the NL East (risk $100 to win $500, or anything in that ratio), 12/1 to win the National League, and 30/1 to win the World Series. Nobody’s thinking this is a 19-31 caliber team any more.

At the very least, watch Washington.