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9/20/2007 12:13:00 PM

NL East: The Fight for Fourth

By Ben Reiter

The Mets last week learned the hard way that their battle with the Phillies isn't the only race currently underway within the NL East.

True, the Washington Nationals, at 68-84, today stand 16.5 games behind New York in the division. But as the Nats demonstrated in taking games on Monday and Tuesday from the playoffs-hungry Mets, they're doing anything but giving up. In fact, should the Nats, who were expected to field one of the worst teams in MLB history this season, manage to finish atop the Marlins in the standings -– and they're currently enjoying a three-game cushion on Florida -– 2006 will have to be viewed an unqualified success in Washington.


  • Despite losing by far their best hitter (Alfonso Soriano, who slugged 26 percent of the team's homers in `06) and their most experienced starting pitcher (Livan Hernandez), and despite playing without their injured ace (John Patterson) since early May, the Nats have two more wins than they did last Sept. 20.

  • Since a miserable start left them at 9-25 on May 9, they've gone 59-59.

  • No fewer than eight teams -– the Orioles, Devil Rays, White Sox, Royals, Pirates, Astros, Giants, and, of course, the Marlins -– currently own worse records than they do.

    In SI's MLB preview issue back in March, I wrote, "The tenor of Washington's spring was a mix of optimism and realism -– the optimism born, in part, or the reality that the club is widely anticipated to be the worst in the majors and can only exceed expectations." When I spent some time in the Nats' clubhouse on Tuesday afternoon, I found that none of that optimism had diminished -– but that it's now born of the reality that the Nats can be sure that they're on the track to respectability, especially with a new ballpark set to open next spring and with the quick ramping up of a formerly-barren farm system that suddenly boasts both legitimate prospects and legitimate scouting talent.

    (Meanwhile, the Marlins, who were a Nationals-esque surprise last season, and who were, at 31-31, a .500 ballclub on June 8, appear to have completely lost their way -– they're 34-56 since then, and with no new stadium on the horizon their time in South Florida appears to be growing short).

    In the cramped, fragrant confines of RFK Stadium's visitors' clubhouse on Tuesday, where the Mets were hunkered down and trying to figure out a way to beat the Nats (they would go on to lose again that evening, 9-8), I discovered nothing but admiration for the Nats' accomplishments this season. "They don't have the marquee names -– they might not have the Jose Reyeses and the Carlos Beltrans -– but they have good solid players that can get the job done," said probable NL MVP David Wright, who is close friends with fellow Virginian third baseman Ryan Zimmerman.

    Said Mets GM Omar Minaya, "I was with [the Nationals' franchise] when they were the Expos. We always tried to finish in first place, and then if we couldn't our goal was to finish at .500 -– but it's still a successful year [for them] not to play in last place."

    The Mets attributed much of the Nats' success to manager Manny Acta, who spent the previous two years as third base coach in New York and whose work my colleague John Donovan recently analyzed on SI.com.

    "I knew he was going to be a huge addition over there, and I think he's instilled into their minds that, Hey, although everybody else expects us to be at the bottom of the totem poll, we're not going to have that mindset," said Wright. "I think guys are feeding off Manny's energy and his beliefs. I think he's one of the best young minds in the game."

    Added Minaya: "They're feisty, they play hard. It's a credit to Manny that they're doing all this. That's how I expect a Manny Acta team to play."

    When the Phillies looked at their schedule before the season, they must have jumped for joy when they saw that six of their final nine games of the season would come against the Nationals. After seeing how well the Nats play the spoiler role, one doubts the Phils are currently as enthused. "When they're not playing us, I'm rooting for them," said Wright on Tuesday, with more than a little self-interest. "It definitely would be a nice springboard into next year if they can finish on a positive note."

  • Chris Needham's Capitol Punishment features some helpful advice for reeling Mets fans.

  • Is self-flagellation next for for Mr. Lo Duca? A hair shirt, maybe?

  • This Marlins team really is a bunch of franchise record-setters. Unfortunately those records include worst batting average against, most errors, and fewest complete games.

  • The Braves may be the only NL East team not fighting for its position in the standings right now -– they're pretty much a lock to finish a disappointing third, as they're three games behind the Phillies and 11 ahead of the Nats -– but both Chipper Jones and Edgar Renteria are in the thick of the race for the NL batting crown.

  • The Good Phight praises the man who leads the Phillies in OBP -– and it's definitely not who you think.


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