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Posted: Thursday April 23, 2009 4:58PM; Updated: Thursday April 23, 2009 5:15PM
Tim Marchman Tim Marchman >
INSIDE BASEBALL

When it comes to being bad, no one beats the Washington Nationals

Story Highlights

The Nationals started the season 1-10 thanks to some amazing bad luck

Last Friday, Adam Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman wore jerseys that said 'Natinals'

Washington has actually scored as many runs per game as the Mets

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Ryan Zimmerman
Another Nationals embarrassment: Franchise star Ryan Zimmerman missing the "O" on his jersey last week.
AP

Some time between Opening Day and today, the Washington Nationals ceased to be one of baseball's lesser teams. They're now its worst, full stop. Other teams have worse players, some even worse pitching, but none has such bad timing, and none seems so committed to making the season a botch.

The Nationals started off the year 1-10. This isn't so bad as it seems: The 2003 Detroit Tigers endured 30 distinct 1-10 streaks, and the the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals played through one in a year in which they won the World Series. What distinguished the Nationals' run was exemplary bad luck, the kind that would have a more sensible team ploughing up the field to look for a cursed frog buried in the grass.

Last Friday, the day when they somewhat notoriously sent Adam Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman, their two best players, on to the field wearing "Natinals" jerseys, the team had a 2-1 lead going into the top of the 9th inning. After they retired the first Florida Marlins hitter, they had a 91 percent chance of a win. They lost. The next night, they took a 6-2 lead after two innings, and with one out in the 9th had a 99 percent chance of winning. They lost. The night after that they entered the 9th with an 84 percent chance of winning. Again, they lost.

As a general principle, luck evens out in baseball even if no one does anything. Still, the Nationals did something. They sent reliever Saul Rivera, pegged for two of these hideous losses, down to Triple-A Syracuse, packed along reserve catcher Josh Bard, and designated two other relievers for assignment.

Granting that the exiled pitchers had run up an earned run average of 9.50 in 18 innings to that point, this still made as much sense as a huddled band of tribesmen casting four of their own out into the wilderness to appease the angry gods. And it was only slightly more effective. After tripling their season wins total with two victories over the Atlanta Braves, the Nats lost yet again on Thursday night, this time walking in the winning run in the 9th inning of a scoreless game. This weekend they visit the New York Mets, with Johan Santana up first, and after that they get the world champion Philadelphia Phillies. The Nationals are doomed.

The shame of all this is that the team really isn't that bad. A truly wretched lot like the 2006 Kansas City Royals, who started the year even more badly than the Nationals have, usually lacks talent comprehensively. They use middle relievers for starters and pinch hitters for cleanup batters, and play lots of defenders a position or two to the right of where they should be on the defensive spectrum.

Washington isn't like that at all, especially in the lineup. Zimmerman and center fielder Elijah Dukes are highly talented young players. First baseman Nick Johnson, when healthy, is one of the better hitters in all baseball. And Dunn is, if not a star, doubtless to be relied on for his annual 40 home runs and 100 walks. The team is built badly, with too much money invested in too many corner outfielders and first basemen. But it doesn't lack talent.

What's still stranger is that the Nationals aren't just decent on paper -- they actually haven't played all that badly. Heading into Thursday's off day they had scored as many runs per game as the Mets, more than the Braves and the Milwaukee Brewers. They were next-from-last in runs allowed, but still nearly half a run better per game than the Phillies, who weren't inviting comparisons to the '03 Tigers. Had they just won the games that they mathematically had essentially no way to lose, no one would be calling them baseball's worst joke or speculating that Washington's best-known baseball fan has stayed away from Nationals Park in a shrewd bid to avoid getting the stench of loss on him.

Timing and image, though, count for a lot, and as badly as the Nats have failed at one, giving up their runs at the absolute worst possible times, they've done worse at the other. From former general manager Jim Bowden's resignation amidst a bonus-skimming scandal to the spectacle of a Little League group offering to pay a fine the well-paid Dukes incurred for being late to a game, to the misspelled jerseys, the Nats seem to attract damage. And it's this, more than their record, that has made them a joke. They don't just lose, they lose gracelessly, and when they fail, they do so spectacularly. The Nationals are really good at being miserable. It's good for the rubber-neckers among us that they've had the bad luck to allow them to be so.

Tim Marchman lives in Chicago and opines at tmarchman.com.

 
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