As I write this on Monday night, the Washington Nationals are the best team in baseball with a 75 and 46 record. Want some metrics that are a little more sophisticated, they have the best run differential in the National League at the start of tonight’s game against the Braves.
Speaing of tonight’s game, if the Nationals win – they’re currently tied at 4 in the top of the 11th – they’ll be 30 games above .500. A DC major league baseball team hasn’t been this good since the Senators won 99 games in the first year of FDR’s first term. The last time the Nationals/Expos franchise finished with a better record was the 1979 Expos, though an argument could be made that ’94 Expos would have made all this moot since they were 34 games above .500 in early August when the players went on strike.
The funny thing about the Nationals is that this wasn’t supposed to happen – not this year at least. When pitchers and catchers reported to Florida and Arizona back in February, much of the talk in the NL East revolved around the flashy and pricey contracts laid out by the Miami Marlins, the garish ballpark they were opening in downtown and their outlandishly boisterous new manager. Or how the Phillies wouldn’t be as good as they were last year but they’d still manage to win the NL East. Even the Braves overshadowed the Nationals in some pre-season projections.
This was all in spite of trading for Oakland ace Gio Gonzalez, getting Stephen Strasburg back from Tommy John surgery and building off an 80-win season in 2011 where they finished the season strong after Davey Johnson took over as manager.
Washington’s success this season is all the more impressive when the injuries they’ve dealt with are taken into consideration. Outfielder (and my former boss and life-long Phillies fan’s favorite contract to make fun of) Jayson Werth went down with a broken wrist in May, closer Drew Storen was out until after the All-Star game, Ryan Zimmerman was not himself till he received a cortisone shot in July and catcher Wilson Ramos who survived a scary kidnapping in Venezuela this winter was lost for the season in May. This is a team whose starting nine was not at full-strength until very recently.
What has been at full strength since April: pitching. From a starting five that is arguably the best rotation in the major leagues and a bullpen to match that has not missed a beat without Storen as set-up man extraordinaire Tyler Clippard assumed the closer’s role after Brad Lidge was released and Henry Rodriguez proved ineffective.
I remember going to a 2009 game in DC where the Nats took on the defending World Champion Phillies. It felt like we were in Citizens Bank Park as any Nats chant or cheer was shouted down by the Phillies fans in the stands. That wasn’t uncommon when the Phillies were in town.
Now things are different. The one moment in the season series that captures the changing of the guard in the NL East and the natitude of this Washington team came on May 6th when Cole Hamels drilled rookie phenom Bryce Harper in the back. Harper got to third and then stole home on Hamels.
After the game Hamels said, “I was trying to hit him. I’m not going to deny it. That’s just – you know what, it’s something I grew up watching, that’s what happened, so I’m just trying to continue the old baseball…” Nats GM Mike Rizzo fired back, calling Hamels “gutless,” “classless,” and “fake tough.” Rizzo adding, “Cole Hamels says he’s old school? He’s the polar opposite of old school.” Maybe not the brainiest move on Rizzo’s part, but it showed fight for a team that was long pushed around by the Phillies while being the doormat of the NL East.
I remember opening day in 2008 when Ryan Zimmerman hit a walk off home run in the bottom of the ninth against the Braves. That Nationals team finished 59-102. Tonight marks the first game of a critical three-game series between the Nationals and the second-place Braves. A Nats sweep would put the Braves eight games back with 38 to play. A Braves sweep would cut the lead to two. This is a BIG series.
There is still time for this team to hit the wall and fade. Stranger things have happened. Or the Braves could rip off an insane winning streak in the waning days of the season. Even with these nightmare scenarios rattling around my mind, a 99.1 percent chance of making the playoffs playoff calms those concerns most days, the opportunity to enjoy meaningful baseball as a fan this late in the season for the first time is fun. And that’s what being a fan is all about. After years of hoping that draft picks would finally pan out, that guys like Lastings Milledge might turn it around (not so much), and that one of these seasons the team might crack .500, that time has come.
I haven’t been to the park since 2010 when I was trying to catch Strasburg’s first start and ended up with a prototypically underwhelming Livan Hernandez start against the Reds. But I’ve caught the Nats on TV throughout the year and as the season has progressed, there has been an energy at the park. And its an energy that is palpable. It’s Natitude through and through. And its a swagger that starts at the top with the players and is also in the stands. And its a message to any team that finds themselves playing the Nationals in October: we’re for real and we’re here to win!
And in the 13th inning last night, the Nationals won on an infield squibbler that Dan Uggla, the Braves’ second baseman mishandled. Thirty games above .500 and a six game lead in the NL East. We may have a generic aughts designed stadium, we may have a weird mascot and a lame team name, but we’re better than your team.