By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
"We never think we're out of a ballgame," rookie outfielder Ryan Church said.
· Home-field advantage: That the Nationals are 18-9 at RFK Stadium is, the players and coaches say, to some extent due to the fact that they are drawing 32,067 fans per game, as opposed to 9,356, their average in Montreal last year. The total attendance to this point, 865,829, is more than 117,000 fans more than the Expos drew all of last year, and "It makes a difference," Robinson said. "The players will tell you that."
But the ballpark itself -- its dimensions, the way the ball carries -- may have contributed to more Nationals wins than any energy the fans have provided. RFK has yielded fewer home runs than any other major league park, just 30; Dolphins Stadium, home to the Marlins, is next lowest at 39. For a team constructed to win as the Nationals are -- with pitching and defense, not with home run power -- it's a perfect fit.
"You think that hasn't hurt our opponents?" Bowden said. Arizona's "Troy Glaus hit three that would've been out of another park. [The Cubs'] Derrek Lee hit two more." At RFK, they are merely long outs.
Yes, Nationals right fielder Jose Guillen -- who has only one homer at RFK -- feels as if he has been robbed of four home runs because the ball doesn't carry well at home. But the Nationals -- who have players such as Johnson, Guillen and Brad Wilkerson that hit well to the spacious gaps -- have generally benefited. Only one National League team, Cincinnati, has combined for more doubles and triples than Washington.
· Chemistry: Early in spring training, it was apparent the Nationals, for the most part, liked each other. But what has developed was hard to predict. "This," Bowden said, "is a great clubhouse," and he compares it frequently to the 1999 Cincinnati Reds, a group he assembled that overachieved and won 96 games.
But some things have developed that were completely unpredictable. Guillen, a perceived problem in nearly every clubhouse he has previously inhabited, has become a leader in Robinson's eyes. Veteran infielder Carlos Baerga, signed to a minor league contract in February as an afterthought, is the buoyant presence in the dugout, keeping spirits up late in games, too essential to think about cutting now.
Bowden is so loath to mess with the chemistry that it is affecting his personnel decisions.
With second baseman Jose Vidro out until the all-star break, the team desperately needs a middle infielder. Yet Bowden appears to have given up the idea of pursuing former Reds second baseman D'Angelo Jimenez because of Jimenez's history of attitude problems.
And even in a clubhouse as diverse as any in baseball -- the Nationals have more foreign-born players than any other club -- the players click.
"I've been on teams where, not that guys didn't get along, but they didn't really interact as much," said third baseman Vinny Castilla, a veteran from Mexico. "Here, the Latin guys like the American guys, and the American guys get along with the Latin guys. There's no problems. It's important."
How important, exactly, is hard to say, as is nailing down exactly how all this has happened -- or if it can continue. It is not, after all, 1933, when Washington had a team that could cruise to the pennant. It is, however, more than two months into the season -- two surprising months that have Washington baseball fans, new and old, atwitter again.
"It's nice to be near the top," Robinson said. "It's nice to be on top, if you get there. It's better than being there in last place. But we have to understand where we are and what the circumstances are. We can't get carried away with it."