Nationals Seek Their Better Half

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 2, 2007

PITTSBURGH, July 1 -- There were nothing but positive vibes in the Washington Nationals clubhouse Sunday afternoon, where Dmitri Young dressed as a newly minted all-star, where Jesus Flores carefully ushered his first home-run ball back home, where Mike Bacsik noted how fun it is to pitch competitively, to help his team win. Such feelings are possible after a 3-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates, a result that made the quick flight home much more relaxed.

Yet even with a five-game losing streak halted, there were mixed feelings on a day that marked the halfway point of the season -- 81 games in, 81 to go. The Nationals are in last place in the National League East, right where they were predicted to be. They have the second-worst record in baseball -- Cincinnati has the worst -- and considering some of the sky-is-falling projections from the spring, staving off abject failure could be, in a warped way, considered something of a triumph.

To a man, though, the Nationals (33-48) dismissed such thinking. They are on pace to go 66-96. They would very much like to avoid a repeat of such mediocrity in the second half.

"When we lose, it can't be: 'Oh, it's okay. We're supposed to,' " said catcher Brian Schneider, the team's longest-tenured player. "No freakin' way. You shouldn't accept it. I don't care what everyone says. I don't care what people predict. I don't care what you predicted, or the people on ESPN said. We're going to try to win every game. Is it okay to lose? No, it's not."

Such is the difficulty of the evaluation at the halfway point. Sunday wrapped up the club's story in one tidy two-hour 14-minute package. Bacsik, who hadn't pitched in the majors since 2004 before this season, went six innings and gave up one earned run, the kind of unexpected performance from a fill-in player that has helped keep the Nationals afloat. Flores, the rookie catcher who plays but once a week, hit the first homer of his major league career, a two-run shot that snuck over the left field wall in the sixth, the kind of thing that might be expected of him in three or four seasons, when he is more experienced.

Yet there they were, a stop-gap part and a prospect, combining for the victory.

"I was excited," Flores said. "I'm so happy about it. It's great to help the team win. I have the ball, and it's something special to keep."

In truth, though, Bacsik (2-5, 4.65 ERA) and Flores are bit players in any assessment of the season's first half, here only because the rotation has been devastated by injuries and because the club needed a catching prospect in the Rule 5 draft.

Even Young, who had two more hits to lift his average to .340, was signed as a low-rent fill-in for injured starter Nick Johnson, who hasn't played this season because of a broken leg. Therefore, Young could be traded for a prospect who could develop into a piece of the future.

So the true evaluations should be of those who are supposed to be here in years to come, from third baseman Ryan Zimmerman (.245, 42 RBI) to right fielder Austin Kearns (.254, 26 RBI, fewest for a regular fifth-place hitter in baseball) to infielder Felipe Lopez (.234, .284 on-base percentage, nine steals) and others. Most of the Nationals feel they left a slew of wins on the table in the first half because, with few exceptions, the players who are supposed to excel have not.

"By no means do I think I've done as good as I can," Zimmerman said. "I think Kearns would say the same thing. Felipe would say the same thing. So for us to win as many games as we can with a bunch of us not performing, there's reason to think we can do better in the second half."

A year ago on July 1, Zimmerman was hitting .272 and 51 RBI. Kearns was hitting .273 with 15 homers and 47 RBI for the Cincinnati Reds. Lopez, also with the Reds at that point, was hitting .274 with 22 steals. Even the bullpen, which is considered the team's strength, has blown 15 saves, tied for second-most in baseball.

"From an 'experts' standpoint, I think we probably did a little better than they thought," Kearns said. "But I don't think anybody in here is happy about that. . . . There's quite a few of us who have not done our part."

Thus, the cup-is-half-full-view: The performances will be better in the second half because they have been better in the past.

"We have about, I would say, five -- at least -- positions that are under-achieving," Manager Manny Acta said. "I mean, I'm looking forward to the second half because this absolutely cannot continue to go this way. And if those guys come alive, then the second half will be better for us."

Sunday, they came alive, but barely. Washington's runs came on Robert Fick's bases loaded groundout in the fourth and Flores's homer -- on an 0-2 curveball from Pirates starter Paul Maholm. Those three runs marked the high-water mark on this road trip, which featured all of 10 runs in six games.

The bullpen, though, did what was required on Sunday. Luis Ayala relieved Bacsik with the bases loaded in the seventh. He gave up a pair of sacrifice flies but no hits. Jon Rauch, two days removed from giving up the winning run in the bottom of the ninth, pitched a perfect eighth in which he struck out Xavier Nady and Jason Bay. And closer Chad Cordero allowed a single in the ninth, but finished with a strikeout and a double-play ball.

Afterward, the Nationals exchanged congratulatory high-fives for the 33rd time this year. And the question remained: Can they do it more often in the second half?

© 2007 The Washington Post Company