Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 6, 2010

Break Up The Nats!

We are one month into sports’ longest season, and the lowly Washington Nationals entered Thursday night’s tilt against Atlanta a game over .500 with fourteen wins, and just two games back of the defending NL champion Phillies in a tightly bunched Eastern Division. At this time last year the Nats were already ten games under .500, well on their way to a disheartening 103-loss campaign. In 2009, Washington didn’t record its 14th victory until June 2nd. The longest losing streak for this year’s team is two; while last year’s squad dropped their first seven contests, and suffered through another eight game losing streak in mid-summer.

Considering that the Nationals have already faced the Phillies six times (going 2-4), their start is even more impressive. They’ve lost only one series to a team not from Philadelphia, while winning four series and splitting a four-game set against Colorado. And Steven Strasburg is still a month away from joining the team!

If the Nationals can somehow keep this up, they would finish with a record of 84-78. But why stop there? It’s easy to forget that the ’09 Nats actually had a strong finish to that black hole of a season, winning their final seven games. Which means that Washington has won twenty-one of their last thirty-four regular season contests. Over a full 162 game schedule, that works out to let’s see, seven plus three is ten, carry the one plus nine, oh my god! One hundred wins! The greatest turnaround in major league history!

Or not. A month into the longest season, the Great Game is always filled with statistics that are fun to contemplate but in the long run meaningless. Does anyone really think that the Tampa Bay Rays will end the season with a road record of 74-7, which is what their current 11-1 travel mark would suggest? I didn’t think so.

In the course of their surprising start the Nationals have posted many such numbers. Livan Hernandez has an ERA of 0.99. A month ago one would have been more likely to associate the number ninety-nine with his age. Tyler Clippard has given up just eight hits in 19 2/3 innings of relief work. The last time I saw Clippard in person he was wearing pinstripes and giving up back to back to back to back (yes, that would be four consecutive) home runs to the Red Sox in Fenway Park. Ivan Rodriguez is batting .405. Pudge will one day be in the Hall of Fame, but that doesn’t make him Ted Williams. The reality of course is that Washington’s won-loss record through the first month is certain to fall back to earth as are all of those individual stats.

One has to hope that when that inevitable fall occurs, it just doesn’t turn into a free fall. On that score, I think that there may be grounds for hope. Offensively this season the Nationals have been reasonably steady. Of course they’ve averaged more runs scored in games they’ve won than in losses, but the difference, 5.07 to 3.46, isn’t lopsided. But on the mound Washington hurlers have either been pretty good, or really, really bad. Opponents have averaged just 2.29 runs scored in DC’s fourteen wins. In only three of those wins did the opposing team score more than three runs. But in the thirteen losses opponents have averaged 7.85 runs, scoring seven or more times in ten of those thirteen games. Through Wednesday, the Nats pitching staff ranked eleventh in the National League in ERA, trailing five teams with poorer won-loss records. Along the way they’ve issued the fourth most walks while ringing up the fewest strikeouts in the league.

So yes, there has been the remarkable start by Hernandez. On the other hand, starters John Lannen and Craig Stammen both have ERA’s hovering around 6.50. Which makes them both Cy Young compared to off-season acquisition Jason Marquis. Tagged as an innings-eating groundball-inducing veteran, the former All-Star raced out to an 0-3 record with a laughable ERA of 20.52 before going on the disabled list with bone chips in his elbow. Meanwhile out of the bullpen, yes there has been Clippard’s stinginess, not to mention eleven saves by Matt Capps. But Miguel Batista and Brian Bruney have been regularly lit up by opposing hitters.

The reason for hope in the face of this feast or famine early season by Washington’s pitching staff is simply the fact that all of the reinforcements out there on the horizon are pitchers. Drew Storen is being prepped as a likely setup man out of the bullpen and looks to have great potential in that role. But so far, he’s still prepping in AAA. Potential starter Chien-Ming Wang continues his rehab from off-season surgery, pointing towards a late May return. Both offer at least a reasonable expectation of helping rather than hurting. And of course most Washington fans are counting down the days till sometime in early June when the phenom Strasburg first takes the mound in a regular season game.

So while 100 wins is obviously just a little math trick, and even 84 may be a fantasy, the Nats surprising start coupled with the likelihood of improvements to the mound corps should give fans of the DC nine faith that hundred-loss seasons are now in the rear-view mirror. While by no means great, the team is providing some solid reasons for folks to come out to Nationals Park. Which of course has been a problem. In the ballpark’s first year, 2008 attendance was more than 2.3 million, almost 20% higher than for the Nats’ last year at ancient and hulking RFK Stadium. Last year the total sagged to 1.8 million. Through fifteen home games this season average turnout has dropped below 20,000 per game, which works out to just over 1.5 million for the full year. Consecutive years of triple digit losses have had a predictable effect on fan interest and loyalty. But these 2010 Nationals are playing with grit. They deserve to have some folks in the seats at 1500 South Capital Street.

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