Look no further than the 2012 Nationals, who won 98 games not only behind the star power of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Ryan Zimmerman and Jordan Zimmermann but also thanks to the unlikely performances of rookies Tyler Moore, Steve Lombardozzi and — yes — Bryce Harper. None of those players was being counted on to play a major role when that season began. All wound up becoming critical to an NL East title.
Why has the 2013 season been such a disappointment for the Nationals to date? Obviously, injuries to the likes of Harper, Strasburg, Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos and others has been significant. But so has the utter lack of contributions from players who weren't expected to contribute in the first place.
That's what made last night's 5-1 victory in Colorado feel like more than a random Wednesday night victory at Coors Field. It wasn't just that the Nationals won the game to reach the .500 mark again. It was that they did so behind several players who barely registered a mention in spring training, if at all.
The pitching stars? Why, Ross Ohlendorf and Ian Krol, of course. Those two combined to hold the Rockies to two hits over seven innings. The offensive stars? Well, Ian Desmond did drive in three runs. But Anthony Rendon had a pair of hits and an RBI. And Jeff Kobernus and Jhonatan Solano combined to reach base four times.
Not exactly how Mike Rizzo and Davey Johnson drew it up on April 1, huh?
This kind of game, though, is exactly what the Nationals have needed all season. They've needed somebody unexpected to step in and deliver a big-time performance in a key spot. Last night, they got several.
Ohlendorf was nothing short of masterful, attacking Colorado's intimidating lineup with the kind of confidence you'd never have expected from a journeyman just summoned from Class AAA. The 30-year-old right-hander was so impressive, Johnson afterward told reporters he's going to try to find a way to keep him around, even with Strasburg and Ross Detwiler about to return from the disabled list and fill out the rest of the Nats' rotation.
Krol, meanwhile, continued his impressive first week in the big leagues, retiring the side in the seventh. The left-hander — the player to be named later in January's Michael Morse trade — has now retired 11 of the 12 major-league batters he's faced, five of them via strikeout.
Add Fernando Abad to the mix, and the two new lefties in the Nationals bullpen have combined to toss 12 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing five hits and one walk while striking out 14.
Those two pitchers were afterthoughts in Nats camp this spring. (Krol wasn't even acquired until late-March.) Rendon, on the other hand, drew plenty of attention in his second spring training as a professional, impressing with his advanced approach at the plate and rock-solid defense at third base.
Even so, the idea that Rendon would become a significant contributor to the Nationals this season still seemed remote, given his lack of minor-league experience and what appeared to be a stacked lineup at the big-league level, leaving no spot for the 22-year-old. But one week after he was summoned from Syracuse to take over as the everyday second baseman, Rendon looks very much like one of the keys to the Nats' attempt to get back in the pennant race over the summer.
Confident and relaxed in the wake of his first, brief stint in the majors, Rendon is now 9-for-21 with four doubles and four RBI in six games since his latest promotion. He's already racked up 13 total bases in six games. For comparison's sake, Danny Espinosa (the man he replaced in the field and in the lineup) had 13 total bases over his final 19 games before landing on the DL.
Kobernus, too, has become a pleasant surprise, taking advantage of a couple of starting assignments in the last week, going 3-for-6 with two walks.
This is what it takes to win games over the course of a 162-game season. While the stars and the guys who were expected all along to carry the load are still going to turn in the biggest contributions, it's near-impossible to make it to October without also getting help from these unexpected sources.
Will Ohlendorf and Kobernus and Krol and Rendon continue to have a significant, positive impact on the Nationals' fortunes over the rest of the season? We'll see.
This much we do know: The Nats are going to need plenty more performances like they got last night in Denver, from the kind of players who seemingly came out of nowhere to lead this team to one of its most-impressive (and maybe most-important) wins of the season.