Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 28, 2014

With The Spotlight Elsewhere, Nats Approach The Playoffs

The Angels and the A’s have better records, and the drama of being locked in a tense fight for the AL West crown that may well turn on the outcome of the seven games the two must still play against each other. The Dodgers have a far larger payroll, a far grander history, and a pair of Cy Young Award winners in their rotation. The Tigers top that with the last three AL Cy Young recipients among their starting five and the first hitter to win the Triple Crown in 45 years batting third in their order. These are the glamour teams of this baseball season, the squads that are on many pundits’ short lists of teams that will not merely make the playoffs but play on deep into October.

But cruising along under the radar, receiving none of the national attention that the two teams in the huge southern California market inevitably generate and making no blockbuster trade deadline deals like the franchises in Oakland and Detroit is the team that began life as Les Expos de Montreal. The first club to be located outside of the United States, the Expos made but a single postseason appearance in three and a half decades of playing before small crowds north of the border, most of them in the cavernous Stade Olympique. I attended a game there a dozen years ago, buying a seat five rows behind the dugout as a walk-up customer just a few minutes before game time. For the few thousand of us in attendance it was like watching a game in a giant echo chamber, with every crack of the bat reverberating around the great domed structure.

In 2002 MLB purchased the woeful Montreal franchise from owner Jeffrey Loria, part of a complicated dance in which Loria bought the Florida Marlins from John Henry, who was in turn freed up to lead an ownership group that had won a bidding war for the Boston Red Sox. The team remained a ward of MLB for nearly four years. The first two of those were in Montreal, although the Expos played more than one-quarter of their home games in Puerto Rico. Then the team was moved to Washington, D.C., bringing the Great Game back to the nation’s capital after an absence of more than three decades.

Rechristened the Nationals, the team finally got real owners in the Lerner Family in 2006, and moved from old RFK Stadium to lovely little Nationals Park in the Navy Yard neighborhood of Southeast D.C. in 2008. A front office guided first by renowned sports executive Stan Kasten and more recently by general manager Mike Rizzo has gradually built both the current roster and a deep farm system. The Nats were a .500 team in their first season as Nats, fueled by large crowds at RFK raucous with the return of baseball to the city. My last visit to the ballpark where I spent many a youthful afternoon and evening cheering on the Senators was during that 2005 campaign.

Things promptly went bad after that initial season in Washington, and it would be six long years before the Nationals approached a .500 record again. In the midst of that interval was a pair of particularly desolate 100-plus loss seasons. But local fans old enough to remember either of the two incarnations of the Senators (the first now playing in Minnesota, the second in Texas) know a thing or two about losing. After bottoming out in 2009 attendance has been steadily climbing.

Improved performance on the field was a major help in filling the seats at Nationals Park, and two years ago Washington surprised the baseball world by posting the best record in the majors at 98-64. But all of those wins mattered little late on the evening of October 12, 2012. In the decisive fifth game of the NLCS the Nationals raced out to a 6-0 lead over the Cardinals through three innings. Nearly eighty years after the original Senators last played in the Fall Classic, exuberant fans had to believe that the World Series was returning to Washington. But St. Louis kept chipping away, until the visitors came to bat in the top of the 9th trailing 7-5. The Nationals got within one out; indeed they got within one strike of victory. But they got no closer. Before the final out was called the Cardinals plated four runs, putting a sudden and brutal end to the premature celebration in the stands.

Still Washington was the hot pick during last year’s Spring Training. Plenty of pundits had them delivering on outgoing manager Davey Johnson’s cry of “World Series or bust.” But as usually happens over the course of the longest season the hot picks of early March turn into the also-rans of September. The Nationals finished ten games over .500, but also ten games behind NL East winner Atlanta and out of the playoffs.

The offseason brought Johnson’s retirement and the arrival of new manager Matt Williams. As a player Williams reached the World Series three times with three different teams and in three different decades. As a manager the five-time All-Star seems capable of making it four with four in four by leading Washington there.

One Nats fan I know complained bitterly about the fact that no member of the team was chosen to the NL All-Star team in either the fan voting for starting position players or in the player ballot for pitchers. But that actually speaks volumes about this Washington team. With Bryce Harper battling injury much of the season, there is no obvious standout offensive star. Yet the Nationals recently won nine times in a ten-game home stand, producing enough clutch offense to record five of those victories in their final turn at bat. The team has no pitcher who will figure in the Cy Young voting, but as a group Washington’s hurlers have the best ERA in the National League and the best strikeouts to walk ratio in the majors since 1900. These Nationals are not a team of All-Stars, but they are a very complete, and very good, team.

As this is written, that’s good enough to lead the NL East by 6 ½ games over Atlanta. Good enough to have the best record in the National League. Good enough to have the shortest road of all division leaders to the postseason. Of course there is still a month of games to play, and greater collapses have happened. More important, as the Nationals and their fans learned just two Octobers ago, once the playoffs start the slate is wiped clean. Perhaps in the end we will be cheering one of the more high-profile franchises. But perhaps, just perhaps, the popular picks in other parts of the country will suddenly discover that for all of the headlines they generate, the road to a title will run through D.C. What the under the radar Nationals seem to be content with is the knowledge that the only headline that really matters is the final one that proclaims a champion.

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Responses

  1. The Nats pitching staff is underrated, and usually keeps them in the game long enough for one of the position players to work his magic. Not depending too much on one or two guys might bode well in the playoffs. Personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing them win the whole thing.
    Fine post,
    Bill

    • Thanks Bill. Since it looks like my Yankees may once again be sitting out October I figured I would turn my attention to the team that plays in the area where I grew up.

      Mike

      http://www.onsportsandlife.com


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