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Nats Stronger Than Last Year as Break Nears

At the midpoint of the 2016 season, the Washington Nationals sit atop the National League East and possess one of the best records in baseball.

The team is on pace to win 100 games and the division, but are they any better than last year’s version?

Usually a fan base following a team this good would begin to expect a championship. But after three consecutive disappointing ends to promising seasons, the Nats faithful are cautious. The Nationals (50-34 as of July 5) have won only four games more than at this point last year, with an NL East lead of just a few games over the Mets as the All-Star break approaches.

So should the Nats be excited about this season? Absolutely. This year’s team is considerably better than last year’s. Here’s why:

Offseason Moves Yield Dividends

Offseason Moves Yield Dividends

Daniel Murphy may be the best offseason acquisition of any MLB team last winter. The second baseman was named NL Player of the Month in May after hitting an extraordinary .416 with two doubles, seven home runs and 23 RBI. He has emerged as a clubhouse leader, a spiritual leader and a mentor to younger players such as Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg. Murphy may win MVP this season when it’s all said and done.

Players have also gone out of their way to praise new manager Dusty Baker while unapologetically critiquing his predecessor, Matt Williams, who was fired by General Manager Mike Rizzo after two seasons. Pitcher Gio Gonzalez has publicly credited Baker’s belief in him for his newfound confidence and improved play this season.

Returns were initially slow for Rizzo’s trade of reliever Drew Storen to the Toronto Blue Jays for CF Ben Revere, who spent the first few weeks of the season on the disabled list after a spring training injury and struggled to find his rhythm early. He’s been on a tear since then, though, becoming a reliable leadoff hitter and dangerous base runner. Last week he hit a walk-off double in the 14th inning against the Reds and stole four bases in one game against the Mets.

In May, Rizzo made a commitment to the team’s ace, signing Strasburg to a seven-year contract extension worth $175 million. The 27-year-old has rewarded the Nats by going 11-0 so far this season.

Better Pitching

Better Pitching

The Nats have what is widely considered the best starting rotation in baseball. The team leads the majors in strikeouts with 780 and is ranked third in ERA and walks allowed. Strasburg and Max Scherzer both average more than 10 strikeouts a game, the only teammates in the majors to do so. Following them are Tanner Roark and Gonzales, two pitchers who have improved drastically this season. Roark struck out 15 Minnesota Twins in one game, only to be out done by Scherzer’s 20-strikeout performance against Detroit. Joe Ross also has been productive.

Last year, even when the offense was scoring, some big leads were lost by an unreliable bullpen. This season, the bullpen has been much more dependable. Closer Jonathan Papelbon has only blown two saves in 18 opportunities.

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