Beating The Percentages

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, June 25, 2007

A week shy of the midpoint of their season, the Nationals walked off the field at RFK Stadium yesterday with a higher winning percentage than the Reds, Royals, Rangers, Astros, White Sox and Pirates. And the same record as the Orioles. By midnight, the standings shuffled a bit. But the point is the same. Deep into the season, the Nats are the punch line, not the joke.

"Most experts predicted we'd lose about 162 games," said Ray King, one of five pitchers in a 3-1 win over Cleveland.

With that victory the Nats completed an 8-7 record in a 15-game stretch against the American League in which they were supposed to be utterly overmatched and now boast the same 32-43 mark as last year's team at the same point. Yet they've done the job without Alfonso Soriano, Nick Johnson, Jose Vidro, Jose Guillen, Livan Hernandez, Ramon Ortiz and a half-dozen other veterans while surmounting a ludicrous number of injuries.

"Everybody laughed at our rotation on Opening Day, then we lost four of them," Manager Manny Acta said. "When I hear about other teams having injuries, I don't have a lot of sympathy for them."

In a season that began with countless questions, the resilient Nationals have continued to find unlikely and pleasant answers. With 23 wins in their last 41 games, the Nats have played miles above expectations for a quarter of a season. Yet their current altitude is as scary as it is inspiring. They're baseball's plucky but endangered high-wire act. And it never gets easier.

Yesterday, red-hot Cristian Guzman hurt his thumb on a tag play at second base and headed to the 15-day disabled list. Reliever Jesus Colome, who is second in the majors in games pitched and has a 2.76 ERA, joined him there with an infection.

Shawn Hill, the team's best pitcher this season, will have his sore elbow, which already recovered once from ligament replacement surgery, inspected by orthopedist James Andrews today in Birmingham, Ala. "Too bad I don't drink. I could use a buzz on the plane," Hill said. "I hope it's the needle [cortisone shot], not the scalpel. I'll do whatever he says unless it's 'I need to chop your left leg off.' If he says, 'I need to stick a nail in your elbow,' that's okay."

So, just as the Nats finally got back 2005's star setup reliever Luis Ayala last week, and anticipate the return of Jason Bergmann today in Atlanta, they lose their leadoff man who's hitting .329 and an all-star candidate reliever while holding their breath that Hill will be back in their rotation in July (best case) or '09 (if it's ligament replacement again).

"We play with what we're dealt," catcher Brian Schneider said. The Nats have become Team Oblivious. You can fry, boil or steam them. You can fillet or gut them. You can subtract almost their entire starting staff or injure their infielders, but the Nats show up the next day like they have amnesia. This week was a microcosm of their "what, us worry?" season.

On Tuesday, the Nats were clubbed, 15-1, as part of a three-game sweep in which the Tigers scored 32 runs on 41 hits, including nine doubles and five homers. "They just kept hittin', hittin' and hittin'," said Jason Simontacchi, a 10-run avalanche victim in three innings on Tuesday. Then, on Saturday night, in the sport's other type of Most Demoralizing Loss, closer Chad Cordero gave up a three-run, game-losing home run in the ninth inning in a 4-3 Indians win.

As if anything could be worse, that Saturday loss ended with a bonehead play as wandering Nook Logan was trapped off third with Ryan Zimmerman due to bat with the bases loaded. As the crowd gasped, Logan was not only tagged out to end the game but also pinned to the ground by Casey Blake, still a yard from the base, like a gruesome entomology display.

Yet the Nationals' response yesterday was, as usual, ridiculously resilient. Did a building just fall on us? Can't remember. Same score, same situation: Cordero got a save against the same heart of the Cleveland order that crushed him just hours earlier. Simontacchi, following the worst game of his career, allowed only one run in six innings to get the win. And the Nats held the Indians -- the second-best hitting team in baseball -- to a .202 average as they won two of three.

How can a end Saturday night's loss with a blown save and a brain cramp, then just ignore it all?

"People don't get it," Zimmerman said. "We just don't care."

The Nats show up, count the warm bodies, check the lineup card and play as though they just don't care that perfectly sensible major league scouts predicted that -- at full health -- they might be the worst team in history this season. All things considered, their 31-37 record since April 10 is one of the most remarkable 11 weeks I've seen from any team.

You want a symbol? In six emergency starts during this all-hands-on-deck fire drill, Rule 5 rookie Levale Speigner was pummeled and humiliated for an 11.79 ERA. Yesterday, the Nats traded an outfielder that was hitting .315 in Class AAA to the Twins to keep Speigner. And everybody cheered. He has potential. He's one of ours.

In a season in flux, a year that could still fall apart, it's hard to know what really matters, what answers have lasting weight. But team president Stan Kasten thinks he already has a "yes" to two large questions.

"I know we've got a general manger who can really find 'pieces,' " Kasten said. In yesterday's game, castoff Dmitri Young continued his all-star campaign with two hits, raising his average to .339. Utility man Ronnie Belliard had three hits and is hitting .297. Jesus Flores, a Rule 5 pickup, had two RBI. General Manager Jim Bowden found them all when few, if any, wanted them. That's one day's list.

"After all the players we subtracted, to get where we are now, especially with all the injuries, is a testament to Jim and his staff," Kasten said. "And we've found a manager that can manage. Watch how this team is playing. That's the manager.

"So we're okay at those two spots. That's a lot to know."

Today, the Nats will know more -- more questions, more answers -- about Bergmann's return and Hill's future, and about Guzman's injury. In amassing all these pieces of information don't forget to look at the picture the whole puzzle makes.

With a team that was supposed to be awful, in an ancient park before the fifth-worst crowds in baseball, in a season when they have had the worst injuries in baseball, the Nats have played the league to a standstill since the 10th day of the season. Yesterday, Cleveland's Paul Byrd told Austin Kearns, "You guys have a scrappy little team." How nice, in a condescending way.

What happens, someday, if they become a scrappy big team?

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