Looking to “Ignite your Natitude?” Check out our bandwagon cheat sheet

By Matt Raab, Sports Editor

Your Washington Nationals are 32 games over .500, with a record of 91–58 at press time. They’ve easily surpassed their home run totals from last year and their pitchers have allowed the fewest runs in all of Major League Baseball. The team has a 5.5 game lead over the Atlanta Braves in the National League East.

Ok. Great numbers. But what does it all mean? Are the Nationals actually good? Are they going to make the playoffs? Do I need to buy a “Curly W” shirt and cap? For a lot of metro area residents, the prospect of a local professional baseball team in the playoffs is baffling, and for good reason—since the creation of the Washington Nationals in 2005, the franchise has consistently finished well out of the playoff race, and the Orioles haven’t made the playoffs since 1997.

So as a favor to confused Washingtonians, here is the 2012 Washington Nationals Playoff Bandwagon Cheat Sheet.

Lets start with the basics. Who are the Nationals?

Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, the other Zimmermann (who does he spell his name with two n’s), the guy with the hobo hair and the pitcher with the funky glasses?

Technically, yes.

But not really.

What about Michael Morse, the hulking, charismatic slugger? What about Danny Espinosa, the middle-lineup hitting, quietly-consistent second baseman? What about Edwin Jackson, the stalwart, seasoned pitcher with arguably some of the worst luck in the major leagues? The Washington Nationals are easily one of the most lovable teams in baseball.

So take away Harper, and take away Strasburg, and you still have a talented and interesting team. Albeit, it would be a team that would never make a headline on ESPN—a Sept. 2 start by Strasburg merited three headlines about his impending shutdown, and a multi-RBI game by Harper almost guarantees a leading headline for any sports network—but it would be a team capable of playing well above average in the MLB.

First baseman Adam LaRoche has attracted league-wide attention with a career- high 30 home runs and counting and the eighth most RBIs in the National League, according to MLB.com. Pitcher Gio Gonzalez, according to MLB.com, has the most wins in the majors (19) and the fifth most in strikeouts in the National League.

So now you have a few tidbits to share about the Nationals roster beyond Strasburg and Harper. But let’s take a moment to discuss Strasburg specifically, and the discussion that has been central to any mention of the Nationals since April: should there be a limit on Strasburg’s pitching?

We will never know the answer to this question. Strasburg has been shut down. He’s done. No relenting coaches giving him one last start, no miracle return for the playoffs. There is no precedent to this decision from a baseball perspective. Thus the arguing is vehement, but it is also completely hypothetical. And the decision was never really in doubt, at least among the Nationals management.

So when someone complains about how hurt the Nationals chances are by the loss of Strasburg, what they don’t realize is the massive amount of medical evidence, from experts across the U.S., indicating that Strasburg needs his rest. While it is true that the situational basis for this evidence in the MLB is limited, the science we do have on the preserving of pitchers indicates that additional rest does lead to a healthy return. Look at pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, who was medically in the exact same situation as Strasburg a year earlier, although not the ace of the staff on a playoff contending team. He was shut down early, after about the same amount of pitching as Strasburg, and returned to pitch a stellar year, currently possessing a 10-8 record and one of the lowest ERAs in the National League.

Thus, those who push for Strasburg to continue don’t adequately consider the long term potential of Strasburg and this team as a whole. They don’t think about the liability the Nationals could face if Strasburg reinjures himself some point down the road after playing against medical advice. While Strasburg is certainly the superstar ace of the Nationals rotation, by no means is he the key to playoffs success. That will depend much more on the Nationals bullpen and hitters, players who play every day.

Now a look at one last essential component of the Washington Nationals: their slogan. There’s two basic camps on the “Ignite Your Natitude” battle cry that has been the centerpiece of National’s homestands. The first is the “This is basically the worst slogan of the MLB” camp, mostly populated by crabby longtime Nationals fans who in their hearts want nothing more than a losing team to return to Washington so they can have the stadium to themselves again. On the other side, the more progressive pro-Natitude camp has embraced the slogan as a unique display of the team’s spirit, and a useful imperative to use in conversation.

So there you go, young Nationals fans. Go out there and give baseball a turn at the center of a Washington bandwagon craze, if you dare. This is a team worth getting excited about. Ignite your Natitude.  And no, you don’t have to watch the whole game.