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NL East: Nationals Celebration
It's official: we can no longer rely upon the Washington Nationals as a go-to punch line here at the Fungoes blog.
Four Wednesdays ago, the Nats stood at 9-25 after suffering their eighth straight loss, putting them on pace to go 43-119, and seemed certain to fulfill the destiny predicted for them by experts everywhere as one of history's most putrid teams. But a funny thing has happened since then: they've started to play competitive baseball. The Nats won 14 of 21 immediately after that eight game slide, and are now 24-35. Yes, they're still on track to lose 96 games, but suddenly they're not baseball's worst team (that would be the Rangers, at 21-37). Nor are they baseball's second-worst team, nor even the third-worst (the Royals and Reds are both 22-38).
There are still certain things that the Nats' collection of journeymen and cast-offs can't do: they can't score (28th in runs); they can't make contact (28th in batting average); they can't hit for power (28th in extra base hits); they can't field (6th highest error total); they can't find good starting pitching (26th in starters' ERA, 29th in starters' wins). But here are four reasons why the Nats might not reach the century-mark in losses after all.
1. The Bullpen
Thanks to an unsettled and injury-plagued starting staff, Washington's bullpen has thrown more innings (305.2) than any other—and they've been more than up to the task, ranking tenth in ERA (3.84) and fourth in wins (10). One reason for their success is that they expected to be overworked. "It's something we dealt with last year too," closer Chad Cordero told me during spring training. "We had a couple spans last year where the bullpen had to come in the third or fourth inning a couple games in a row. We're used to it." Jesus Colome, who was released by the Devil Rays last April, has been a revelation in middle relief: after a team-high 30 appearances, he boasts a 2.37 ERA, and his win total of four exceed that of any Nats starter.
Want to know why lightening-fast leadoff man Felipe Lopez, who stole 44 bases last season, has swiped only six this year? It's because the Nats have become the most conservative group in Washington outside the American Enterprise Institute: they've attempted only 27 steals all year, second fewest in baseball. "I don't want to start doing a bunch of crazy stuff or be running all over the place, so people say I'm aggressive, but in the end I'm hurting myself," new manager Manny Acta said in spring training. "We have to run the bases better—we were first in caught stealing last year, and those are things that don't help you." With runs at a premium, Acta's Nats are gambling themselves out of innings no longer—and that cautious, station-to-station style has helped them go 12-8 in one-run games.
Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman's a known quantity, and leads the team in RBI even after a slow start. But the big news is that 28-year-old Ryan Church (.271, 6 HR, 27 RBI) finally seems to have put things together: I was shocked the other day in Philadelphia to look up at the NL doubles leaders they posted on the scoreboard and see Church's name at number four, sandwiched between Matt Holliday and Derek Lee.
4. Diamonds in the rough
One team's trash is apparently the Nats' treasure. Ronnie Belliard and Tony Batista have been surprisingly serviceable in Washington, but Dmitri Young, who ran (or ate?) himself out of Detroit last September, has been the real find. He's seventh in the NL in OBP (.379) and eighth in batting (.319), thanks in large measure to a June in which he hit .397. When (and if) regular first bagger Nick Johnson finally returns from a broken right femur, the Nats might have to deal with a situation to which they can't be accustomed: a glut of talent at a single position.
"They have a good team," said a straight-faced Jamie Moyer the other day. "To me, even when they weren't playing well in the beginning of the season, they were no pushover." For the 2006 Washington Nationals, not being a pushover is an achievement in itself.
Labels: NL East
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Don't slag off the level of baseball in Europe. Netherlands is usually right at the top with Germany and Italy. Unfortunatly Scotland where I'm at is utter rubbish.
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