VIERA, Fla. -- For the last two days, the Washington Nationals have given a precise preview of their coming season, both its potential and its frustrations. After 25 spring games, and with just four days before their final exhibition Sunday at RFK Stadium, the identity of Washington's first major league team in 34 years has now come into focus.
Here's the spring synopsis: 4-3.
On Tuesday, the Nationals lost to the Mets, 4-3. On Wednesday, the Nationals beat the Braves, 4-3, in 11 innings. Both foes expect to be contenders. Both games were close throughout and decided in the last inning or extra innings. In the two contests, Washington's starting pitchers, Tomo Ohka and Livan Hernandez, allowed only three runs in 15 innings.
"We're going to play a lot of 4-3 games. And 5-4 and 3-2 games," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "Our starting pitching has looked very good all spring -- better than I expected." Bowden said few teams with small-market budgets "have five starters who can keep you in the game every night. But, right now, it looks like we do. If we can hit enough, we can win more than we lose."
And if they don't, they won't.
If you bite your nails or pull your hair, this could be a tough season for you. But if you love tight games, a bit on the low-scoring side, filled with strategy and late-inning dramatics, then Washington's first big league season in 34 years should be delicious. If the Nats could actually discover a lineup of average big league productivity, they might even be one of the surprise teams of '05. But, so far, don't count on that.
"Hey, what do you mean we don't score runs? We score one every night -- just like clockwork," joked Bob Boone, assistant to Bowden.
"The last week or so, we've been scoring [an average of about] two runs a game. That doesn't get it done," said Bowden, who sent a message on Tuesday by shipping Endy Chavez, the leadoff hitter who wasn't "getting it done," to the minors.
"Sometimes you kind of have to wake 'em up," said Bowden, one of the game's old-school storytellers and 24-7 baseball obsessives. In '03, when Bowden ran the Reds, he shipped out five players between games of a doubleheader in Puerto Rico against the Expos. "There were a lot of stunned people. They were looking around and didn't have 25 guys in the clubhouse for the second game. But, you know what, they started playing better."
The best Nationals news from Florida is that the starting rotation could hardly look better, relative to realistic expectations. True, right-hander Tony Armas Jr. will start the season on the disabled list with a groin pull. But he'll only miss a few regular season starts. More important, his arm appears fully recovered from '03 shoulder surgery.
The Nats' other four starters, Hernandez, Ohka, Esteban Loiaza and Zach Day, have combined for a 2.85 ERA in 79 innings. Far more impressive is that they have allowed only 81 men on base -- just over one an inning. Their command, an ability to work effectively within the strike zone, has been exceptional with only 13 walks against 42 strikeouts. Such ratios won't continue -- for any team. But few expected all five of the Nats preferred starters to pan out. So far they definitely have.
Washington's top relievers, Chad Cordero and Luis Ayala, have been comparably sharp with one walk and 15 strikeouts in 16 crisp innings. Other pitchers have stumbled. But how many teams leave camp pleased with their seven most vital hurlers?
On the other hand, the Nationals would like a few hitters to regain consciousness. The most obvious problem is that Vinny Castilla, who had 131 RBI last season, has only one RBI this spring. Of course, he also only has two singles because he's been injured. But Castilla returns from his hyperextended left knee on Thursday.
"Vinny led the National League in RBI last year. Yeah, he's probably pretty important to us," Bowden said.