Nationals finally playing as expected but it may be too late
The Washington Nationals finally are playing like, well, the Washington Nationals. The biggest disappointment in baseball has awoken in the past three weeks by going 17-5 and clawing back to five games in the loss column behind Cincinnati for the second wild card with 16 games to play. The problem for Washington is that none of those 16 games are against the Reds. Time is running out.
Here's how difficult it is for Washington to catch Cincinnati. To get to 90 wins, the Reds would have to finish 7-8. Not impossible. The Nationals would have to go 13-3. That means they would have to close the year out on a 30-8 run. Never in the history of the franchise, including the Montreal days, have they won 30 out of 38 games at any point of a season.
Only nine teams since 1900 have finished a season on a 30-8 run or better, and all of them made the postseason: 1906 Cubs, 1930 Cardinals, 1935 Cubs, 1942 Cardinals, 1951 Giants, 1983 White Sox, 2001 and 2002 A's and 2004 Astros.
Where did this Washington revival come from? The Nats did play all of but three games in this 17-5 run against losing teams (though, as shown below, that's not always a guarantee of success). But most of all, their bats have come alive, especially those of Ryan Zimmerman (eight home runs in 11 games this month), Denard Span (23-game hit streak, second longest this season to the 27-game streak of Michael Cuddyer) and Jayson Werth (.359/.441/.641 in the second half). Check out the team's production before Aug. 20 and since:
Time and history may be against the Nats, but if nothing else they deserve credit for grinding out the last weeks of the season when it looked like they were done.
Until the middle of August, Ubaldo Jimenez of the Indians was plodding through a typically inconsistent season. But since then he has become a legitimate ace who is dominating hitters by, yes, pounding the strike zone and helping keep Cleveland in the wild card race. Twice in his past three starts Jimenez has struck out 10 batters without a walk, something he had never done before in 204 career starts.
What happened? Five starts ago Jimenez started throwing his changeup for the first time this year. His velocity also has been picking up over the second half of the season. His average velocity this month on his four-seamer is 94.15 -- the highest it's been in any month in the past two years. With better stuff, and staying more consistent with his notoriously wobbly mechanics, Jimenez is attacking hitters. Since Aug. 17, he is 3-2 with a 1.71 ERA while throwing 64 percent strikes. In 31 2/3 innings in those five starts, Jimenez has 42 strikeouts and 10 walks. He is scheduled to make four more starts for Cleveland, beginning tomorrow at Chicago and on the final day of the season at Minnesota.
One of the dangerous games people play every September is the old "strength of schedule" game. You add up the won-lost records of remaining opponents and arrive at a conclusion about whether a team has an "easy" schedule or not. The Indians, for instance, have only three games remaining against winning teams (Royals) while getting 13 against losing teams (White Sox, Astros, Twins).
But September baseball, because of expanded rosters, is a different ballgame. And losing teams, under the right manager, can raise their game when the pressure is squarely on opponents that are trying to stay in the race. In 2007, the Mets held a 3 ½ game with 14 games remaining -- all of them against losing teams. They went 5-9 and finished one game out of the playoffs. The 2011 Red Sox (3-8) and 2011 Braves (9-9) struggled against losing teams in their September collapses.
It's not that unusual for bad teams to play well in September. Over the previous five years, of the 73 teams that entered September with a losing record, 22 of them played winning baseball in that month. That's 30 percent of all bad teams suddenly becoming winning teams. It seems there may be something to the idea of playing September spoiler.