Don't look now - really, don't - but we're about to see the Nationals at their best

Nobody knows how good the Washington Nationals are, not even the Nats. Their true team hasn't taken the field together this year, not even once. But we may see the real Nats soon. Maybe. Possibly. If the gods allow. Pretty please.

Washington doesn't do sports hope. It's been beaten out of us. But that doesn't mean the Nationals, just a couple of whom are contaminated by close DMV connections, should be forbidden to dream - of a healthy postseason during which they finally have a reasonable facsimile of their best team in one piece.

Bryce Harper batted in a simulated game Tuesday and ran the bases full speed, so he's virtually certain to return during the last week of the season, if not sooner. Since he needs just 30 more plate appearances to qualify for the batting and slugging titles, where he's in second place and close in both, bet on sooner.

With no other central player injured - at least not at this split-second - the Nats finally can imagine fielding their full lineup, their best four-man rotation and, gasp, one of the better bullpens in MLB, all together for the first time this year.

Because the Nats may win close to 100 games playing with spare parts, they'll be hard put not to commit the ultimate D.C. sports sin: They may become optimistic. But don't look for Natty quotes along those lines, 'cause they ain't givin' 'em. Not this year.

"We're cruising along in the middle. Nobody's paying much attention to us," said Ryan Zimmerman, whose Nats have the fourth-best record in MLB, the fifth-best run differential and the fourth-best Vegas odds (7 to 1). "We've been favorites. So, that might be good for us."

How good have the Nats been without their actual real team?

Trea Turner, Adam Eaton (out for the year since April), Harper and Jayson Werth, half of the opening day position players - they batted No. 1, 2, 3 and 6 that afternoon - will end up losing more than 400 days of playing time to injury. The bullpen - because of injury, incompetence and poor off-season planning - was the worst in MLB for the Nats' first 92 games, until GM Mike Rizzo reinvented it. The starting rotation lost Joe Ross for the year. Tanner Roark struggled until July.

Other than that, just a picnic of a season.

Yet the Nats are still the third-highest scoring team in MLB (runs-per-game) and No. 1 in the NL. They'll probably end with four hitters with OPS over .900 batting at No. 3-4-5-6. That happens about once every 15 years in MLB. Add a man with 42 steals in 88 games to ignite that attack: Turner at leadoff.

For the first time in 50 years, one team has three starting pitchers who rank in the top four in their league in ERA. Yes, that would be the Nats. Since the All-Star Game, Roark has been the same sturdy pitcher he was throughout 2014 and '16.

Consider re-reading the previous two paragraphs; I consider every fact in them to be borderline impossible. You lose half your lineup for wide swaths of the season, but lead the league in scoring anyway. Now they're back. You have four of the top 20 OPS men in the game; nobody else has more than two of the top 25. Now you put Turner and Werth atop them and Michael A. Taylor behind them. Rocket fuel.

Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez are all Cy Young Award candidates, and at this minute, Scherzer - who leads the league in strikeouts, lowest batting average, WHIP, OPS-versus and is second in ERA - might win it. Since the All-Star break, Strasburg has the best starter ERA in MLB: 0.72. Next best is 1.98.

Now, about that bullpen. Relief pitcher's ERAs are volatile because one bad game can inflate that number for the whole season. So, let's look beyond the flashy full-season ERAs of Sean Doolittle (2.61), Ryan Madson (1.76), Brandon Kintzler (2.74) and Matt Albers (1.60). How hard is it to get on base against them, much less score? How hard is it to get a hit against them?

Examined that way, they look even better: Madson, Doolittle and Albers are in the top six in the NL in WHIP. The combined batting average against them is under .190. And Kintzler was an all-star.

Relievers are unstable isotopes; they often change from year to year. Maybe Albers, for example, is only a stellar pitcher for this season. But within one season, relievers, once they're locked in, tend to hold their form. And this 'pen is rolling.

Remember when the bullpen door swung open and Blake Treinen or Sean Kelley came out and you screamed? Well, the Nats' 'pen just shut out the Dodgers for 13 1/3 innings last weekend. Sammy Solis, Enny Romero, Oliver Perez and a somewhat improved Joe Blanton are all pitching well. Read and chuckle: The Nats' problem now is that they have too many good arms to fit on one postseason roster.

I've crunched every number, factored in longer-term reputations and postseason experience. Considering that five trusted arms are essential in October, the only 'pens that are even better than the Nats may be the Indians and Yanks.

Finally, the Nats' bench of Adam Lind, Howie Kendrick and Wilmer Difo has thump, versatility and, if the Nats went far enough, would have a DH-tandem in Lind and Kendrick with a .314 average, 20 homers and 89 RBI in 532 at bats.

This team's 99-win pace, granted against one of the weakest schedules in many years, does not capture its potential. However, when it comes to sports in Washington, irony never sleeps. This may be the best team that's ever been seen in D.C. in living memory - even though we have never seen it. Yet.

The Nats will need all the health they can get because, more irony, they assembled their best team in a season with eight teams - twice what you might expect - with run differentials over 100. All of them might beat anyone else.

Remember, Cleveland just set an American League record with 22 wins in row without its All-Star-level second baseman, left fielder or, until the last win, its best reliever. Houston's suspect rotation just added Justin Verlander. Hello, "real Astros." In Arizona, the one-two punch of Paul Goldschmidt and (trade-deadline) J.D. Martinez, who hit four homers in one game, is a new and wonderful event. The Red Sox just made David Price, their mega-millions free agent starter who stinks in October, their multi-inning max-leverage playoff bullpen weapon.

The Nats "only" have to stay intact for two more weeks. But it'll seem like eternity. In the last few days, Zimmerman, Turner, Scherzer, Rendon and Werth have - while playing under orders to Stay Healthy - narrowly avoided injuries. Run into a wall (Werth), stumble rounding a base (Turner), scald a foul off your own ankle (Rendon), almost get hit by a shot through the box (Scherzer) or leapfrog over a foul line drive by a teammate (Zimmerman), it's all waiting for you, every day. There's no such thing as a "safe" big-league game.

So, get ready. Hold your breath. Here comes the best baseball team that Washington has seen in generations. That is, if we ever actually get to see it.

bbn-boswell

Washington Post News Service (DC)

9/20/2017 5:50:34 PM Central Daylight Time

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