Imagine if the Washington Nationals had started this way last year.

Come to think of it, the Nationals were supposed to start this way last year. Start this way, finish this way, play all year this way.

“The boys are playing as good as you can possibly play,” broadcaster F.P. Santangelo said on MASN when the latest Nationals win ended Friday night.

They certainly are, and the only real surprise is that any of us are surprised. The Nationals were a very good team that had a miserable 2015 season under Matt Williams, and now they’re a very good team off to a fantastic 2016 start under Dusty Baker.

It’s only nine games, and six of them were against a truly bad Atlanta Braves team that finally won its first game Friday in Miami. It’s only nine games, and Friday’s 9-1 win came against a Philadelphia Phillies team that isn’t very good, either.

But just as the Nationals set a tone for 2015 with their early injuries and their 2-6 start, they’ve set a completely different tone for 2016. Even their one significant early injury, Ben Revere’s strained oblique, simply gave Baker a chance to play Michael Taylor every day.

Taylor homered on Jeremy Hellickson’s second pitch of the night Friday, starting a five-run first inning. By the time the inning ended, the Nationals’ sixth straight win was a formality, and so was the 8-1 record that stands as the best-ever nine-game mark in franchise history and also the best ever in Washington baseball history.

This really is what was supposed to happen last year, when the Nationals signed Max Scherzer and assembled the best rotation in baseball. Bryce Harper was the guy who famously said “Where’s my ring?” after the Scherzer signing, but plenty of others were thinking it.

It isn’t the exact same team this year, with Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond and Denard Span gone. But with Daniel Murphy added to a lineup that already included Harper, Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth, the Nationals have an offense that can win. With Joe Ross developing and Stephen Strasburg healthy, they have a rotation that has a combined 1.52 ERA over the last six games (and a major league-best 2.01 ERA for the season).

The Nationals also have a four-game lead over the New York Mets—and as Jeurys Familia struggled to get the final out Friday night in Cleveland, it looked like it might go to five. The Mets have already had a game their manager called a must-win (they won it) and have opened up just the opposite of the way they did last year, when they began 13-3.

It’s worth noting that the Mets trailed the Nationals by 4.5 games early last July, even after the Mets started so well and the Nationals started so poorly. It’s also worth noting that if the Nationals hadn’t given away so many games early, they would have had such a big lead that it’s unlikely the Mets would have traded for Yoenis Cespedes.

They did trade for Cespedes, they started scoring runs, and they started winning at a crazy rate behind their outstanding young starting rotation. They went all the way to the World Series, while the Nationals suffered the meltdown that ultimately cost Williams his job.

So this season began with the roles reversed, with the Mets talked about as the special team with the special rotation, and the Nationals talked about as an outside threat if they were talked about at all. Even in the Washington Post, columnist Thomas Boswell declared the Nationals a World Series teambut not until the 2018 World Series.

Boswell was right in one way. The Nationals do have a fine group of prospects, highlighted by pitcher Lucas Giolito and shortstop Trea Turner. But the truth is, it’s not out of the question that Giolito and Turner could end up helping the Nationals to this year’s World Series.

The other truth is that the Nationals still have real pressure to win now, with Strasburg a free agent after the season and Harper three years from free agency himself.

They didn’t hire Baker, who turns 67 in June, with the idea that this will be a three-year project.

They’ve feasted so far on the Braves, and Friday they feasted on the Phillies. But the other way to look at that is they did what they were supposed to.

The Mets, remember, lost back-to-back games to the Phillies last weekend.

Maybe that happens to the Nationals the next two days in Philadelphia. Maybe the 8-1 start means nothing.

Just last season, the Detroit Tigers started 9-1 and finished in last place.

Maybe that happens to the Nationals, but don’t count on it. This may not be exactly who the Nationals are—no team plays this well all season—but this is a lot closer to who they are than what we saw last year.

They’re good, legitimately good.

And it really shouldn’t come as a surprise.


Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

Read more MLB news on