Nats Go Against the Averages
Tuesday, June 7, 2005
The last time, Joe Kuhel, not Nick Johnson, was the run-producing first baseman. The last time, Earl Whitehill and Alvin Crowder -- not Livan Hernandez and Esteban Loaiza -- provided the anchors in the rotation, backed up capably by Lefty Stewart and Monte Weaver, whose roles these 72 summers later are played by John Patterson and Tomo Ohka. And back then, in 1933, Joe Cronin managed the baseball club with "Washington" across its chest into first place in June, just as Frank Robinson has done now.
That version of the Washington Senators -- the last Washington team to reside in first place this late in a season -- arrived there by pure dominance, hitting for a higher average than any team in the American League, posting a lower ERA, led by a recognized star such as Cronin, their Hall of Fame shortstop-manager who drove in 118 runs. The 1933 Senators won the American League pennant easily, finishing seven games ahead of the second-place New York Yankees. They were the best team -- no further analysis necessary.
Turn now to these Washington Nationals, the club that lost 95 games a year ago as the Montreal Expos but now -- somehow -- finds itself atop the National League East, albeit just a game ahead of the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets, and all of 1 1/2 games ahead of Florida and Philadelphia.
How, exactly, have they won seven of their last eight, overtaking everybody in the process? They don't lead the NL in any significant category. In fact, they are statistically unremarkable, in some cases abysmal. Only two teams in the NL score fewer runs per game than the Nationals' 4.09. No team in the league has hit fewer home runs than the Nationals' 40. Their starting pitching is not dominant; their bullpen is, statistically speaking, quite ordinary.
So the elements of this revival are like baseball itself -- subtle, apparent to those who watch closely every day rather than by glancing at box scores, checking the league leaders or catching a few "SportsCenter" highlights. Among them:
· The back end: Forget, for a moment, that Nationals relievers have a pedestrian ERA of 4.24, right in the middle of the NL. The key here has been the last three men, those used to finish out tight ballgames -- 27-year-old Luis Ayala, 25-year-old Gary Majewski and 23-year-old closer Chad Cordero, who have combined for a surprising 2.06 ERA -- not to mention less than $1.1 million in salary.
"We have confidence each one of us is going to do the job," Majewski said last week. But coming into this season, there was no way to predict that would be true. None of the three made his major league debut before 2003. Majewski began the year in the minors. Cordero posted 14 saves last year, and already has 15 (in 17 opportunities) thus far.
"The reason we're winning," General Manager Jim Bowden said, "is because Ayala, Majewski and Cordero have been special."
Thus, only one team, San Diego, has more wins from its bullpen than the Nationals' 14. That's partly because the last three relievers have been so good. But it's also because . . .
· They stay up late: The Nationals are predisposed to going into prolonged offensive slumps, such as late last month, when they failed to score more than three runs in 10 of 11 ballgames, leading to a five-game losing streak that put them, temporarily, in last place. Their offensive numbers range from mediocre (a .263 batting average) to horrendous (.399 slugging percentage, second-worst in the NL).
But when the starting pitchers keep the Nationals in games, the entire dugout gets a feeling. "In those situations," Robinson said, "they believe they can win."
Compare the Nationals' offensive statistics from the first six innings to those from the seventh inning on. They have a significantly higher batting average (.255 in the first six innings to .280 thereafter), on-base percentage (.314 to .359) and slugging percentage (.380 to .435). Of the 233 runs they have scored this year, 101 -- or more than 43 percent -- have come in the seventh inning or later.