Back to previous page


Post Most

Washington Nationals have plenty to look forward to as 2011 season ends

By ,

Shirley Povich, for whom the press box at Nationals Park is named, had a friendly admonition for new baseball writers at The Post: “Don’t trust September.”

Perhaps, just a few times, from 1924 to ’98, he’d noted that late-season wins by Senators teams against Yankees titans were illusions and that the league often figured out scalding rookies by the next spring.

So after four Nationals victories in Philadelphia this week, Povich might have counseled caution. For emotional satisfaction, you can’t beat the sight of Citizens Bank Park (Nats Park North) emptying early every night in disgust.

But those scoreless starts by Ross Detwiler and rookies Tommy Milone and Brad Peacock (0.00 ERA in 19 innings) might be a tad unsustainable.

Also, the Nats’ four-game sweep in New York the previous week, a feat no Washington team accomplished since ’24, might be a shaky portent, too.

But Shirley also knew that “accuracy” and “balance” were not identical. Sometimes the news actually is lopsidedly bad or good. As the Nats close their home schedule on Sunday after beating Atlanta, 4-1, on Saturday in a costly loss for the wild-card leading Braves, the reality of their future prospects is so overwhelmingly encouraging it almost shocks the team itself.

“Short-term, plenty of things could have gone better this season. We should have won a few more games [to be over .500]. But looking ahead, there is not a lot of negative,” Ryan Zimmerman said.

“We’re 20 games out of first place,” Jayson Werth retored.

“That’s not like being 40 back, where we have been,” Zimmerman said.

“All my friends coming up in baseball have already been to the playoffs,” the Gold-Glove third baseman added. “When they ride me, I tell ’em it’ll be more special for me because I’ve had to wait. When you look at where we are right now, we’ve got to make a run at it sometime.”

“I didn’t sign here thinking we wouldn’t,” Werth said.

That Nats’ rational optimism about being a winning team in 2012, and perhaps even a playoff contender, has grown throughout the season as their current 11-3 run has brought them to 77-80 with four games to play, but it’s been obscured. Each month has brought a headline-grabbing annoyance.

In April, Zimmerman was hurt and lost for more than two months. In May, free agent first baseman Adam LaRoche, playing hurt and hitting .172, finally opted for shoulder surgery and was lost for the season. In June, Manager Jim Riggleman suddenly quit. In July, Werth was still having a rotten season and getting booed. In August, a 1-9 losing skid arrived.

But, in hindsight, every important long-term issue on the Nats’ plate on opening day has panned out as well as expected, unless it turned out better. The list of major developments is so long it’s almost silly.

Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann have both recovered, fast-track style, from Tommy John elbow surgery and sit atop what is suddenly a crowded rotation. Nothing matches Zimmermann’s stellar 3.18 ERA and the sight of Strasburg touching 99 mph to encourage the Nats.

Rookies Wilson Ramos and Danny Espinosa established themselves as superior fielders and power bats; one or both may become real stars. Since 1901, no Washington second baseman has ever matched Espinosa’s 21 homers and only Earl Battey (15) in ’60 has topped Ramos’s 14 so far.

Drew Storen, a hot rookie in 2010, has saved 41 games. Got a closer? Check.

Paired with Tyler Clippard, who tops every pitcher or hitter in an advanced stat called “Win Probability Added,” few teams have a better back end.

Ian Desmond slashed his errors by a third at shortstop; position solidified. Michael Morse, stolen in a minor trade, is hitting .304 and is eighth in the NL in slugging; found money. The deep bullpen got deeper with Henry Rodriguez’s 100-mph fastball and surprise Ryan Mattheus (2.35 ERA). Chien-Ming Wang, with a rebuilt shoulder, completed a remarkable comeback with 11 promising starts, including his fourth win Saturday.

In a development almost beyond the grasp of optimists, the Nats are ninth in baseball in ERA (3.64) despite only 30 starts from Zimmermann and Strasburg, rather than the 60-plus they may soon get.

How’d they do it? These are the ERAs of John Lannan, Detwiler (nine starts), Milone (four) and Peacock (two): 3.73, 3.30, 3.32 and 0.75. Only Lannan has a ’12 rotation spot. Nobody trades pitching. The Nats could.

Even Zimmerman, who has hit .310 his last 80 games, changed his throwing motion at third and may have removed his major flaw — wildness.

By accident, Werth himself has probably done more than anybody to divert attention from the Nats’ true overall direction. With a $126 million deal, he slumped until the all-star break. Since then, he’s hit at a 30-homer, .816 OPS rate for his last 54 games — a third of a season.

On Friday, Werth homered into the left field bleachers where the ball landed between two young women, one wearing a Strasburg jersey, the other a Bryce Harper. What happened to ’11 as the Year of Waiting for them?

September’s been the Nats’ kindest month. The recent pleasantness has the added benefit of entrenching Davey Johnson as manager.

“There’s a clear parallel between Davey working with Desmond and Ramos and their improved hitting in the second half,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “When Werth was at his low point, he went to Davey for some dialogue. We’ve gotten coordination between the hitting coach and the manager.”

The Nats’ offense still has miles to go. Low on-base percentage and poor hitting with runners in scoring position is a guarantee for ugly offense. But the Nats think, if they ever get a coherent lineup, their chemistry may click.

“Everyone gets along. Good mix. We discuss things. I still probably don’t jump on other players enough for mistakes,” Zimmerman said. “I’m not the meanest guy. I’m learning. Jayson’s good at it. You know, we haven’t had one [fist] fight on our team this year.”

“It’s not over yet,” Werth said.

Right now, the Nats can joke. They’ve pushed up to third place. In Johnson’s office baseball seminars break out with pitching coach Steve McCatty, bench coach Pat Corales and others sometimes talking baseball “until we realize we’ve been doing it for two hours,” Rizzo said.

Remember, don’t trust September.

“Scouts say the same thing,” Rizzo said. “You can fool yourself. But a pitcher’s stuff doesn’t fool you. Basic ability levels don’t fool you.”

Are the Nats fooling themselves? Give them this: As one season dies, they can’t wait for the next one to be born.

© The Washington Post Company