Throwaway Season a Keeper

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Things could change. Happy endings can turn sour, especially in baseball's interminably long season. Of the Nationals' final 43 games, 30 are against winning teams involved in playoff races. So maybe the National League's contenders will prove that the pesky, plucky Nats have just been playing over their heads -- for the last 110 games.

More likely, the Nats will continue to enjoy, and build upon, a truly remarkable and unexpected season. The team that was supposed to be awful, a bush league bunch, has instead delighted the core of fans who have had the acuity to appreciate them. When the town's new ballpark opens along the Anacostia next season, it's actually possible that, with the addition of a free agent hitter or two, the Nats might field a winning team.

After a horrid 1-8 start, the Nats have gone 53-57 and now have a better record than seven teams and are within two games of three others. Last offseason, after the Nationals slashed payroll to $36 million by subtracting Alfonso Soriano, Jose Vidro, Jose Guillen and four-fifths of their rotation, what odds would Las Vegas have given on such a year?

"It's an amazing story that's surprised everybody in baseball. We need 17 more wins to equal the 71 we had last season. Who in their right mind would have thought that could happen?" said principal owner Mark Lerner, who assumed at least one disastrous season might be the price the franchise would pay to free $50 million to $60 million in payroll for future free agents.

Yesterday, the Nats signed high school pitcher Josh Smoker, the 31st player in the draft, giving them 19 of their top 20 picks of 2007. Today, the Nats could make one of the coups of the draft if they can sign high school hurler Jack McGeary, a top talent, presumed headed to Stanford, on whom Washington took a flier in the sixth round. If the Lerners want to nail down the best draft class of '07, they'll close the McGeary deal.

"I'm very excited. I won't hide it," team president Stan Kasten said. "Look what's going on in the minors. I don't know who to thank first, the people who scouted them, drafted them or signed them."

At Hagerstown, Brad Meyers has not given up a run in his first 23 2/3 professional innings. At Vermont, Adrian Alaniz has a 6-1 record and 1.74 ERA while Glenn Gibson has a 4-1 mark and 1.79 ERA in nine games. The list is longer than that. A year ago, there was no list at all. The cupboard was bare.

Draft-pick signings and the development of prospects in the minors merely complement the surprising improvement of the club in RFK. Since May 11, the day their best pitcher, Shawn Hill, went on the disabled list, the Nats have gone 45-40. And since the All-Star Game, they are 18-13.

This season, two trends have remained constant: Every month it seems that Nats players get injured and yet the team plays better than it did before and, somehow, with more confidence, too.

"When Cristian Guzman went down for the season [on June 24], a lot of people thought, 'The season is over,' " Kasten said. "We were all really down. . . . Then, the team just bounced back. Whatever happens, nothing seems to matter to these guys. They just keep going."

Now, in the season's final seven weeks, the Nats may finally get a glimpse of themselves at something remotely approaching full strength. Granted, the team's best hitter, Nick Johnson, probably won't play at all this year and their Opening Day starter, John Patterson, may not return. But what's a hill to a climber?

Last night, Hill picked up precisely where he left off during a brilliant April and May. In six scoreless innings, the 26-year-old right-hander locked up the Phils with seven strikeouts. Not a single ball was hit hard and the only hit was on a misplayed fly ball as the Nats' ace lowered his ERA to 2.41. Only a pitch count (78) forced him out of a scoreless game.

"It's tough to imagine anyone being as sharp as Shawn was" in his first game back, said Manager Manny Acta, who is now introduced by GM Jim Bowden as "Manager of the Year Manny Acta."

In addition to Hill's return, Jason Bergmann made a minor league rehab start last night and will be back in the rotation soon. As if that isn't enough help, 22-year-old 6-foot-5 lefty John Lannan has made a rocket ascent through the minors after starting the year in A ball. He may not leave town for a long time. The brass is impressed with his 3.00 ERA, well-commanded fastball and quality curve. But, even more, Lannan has resembled Hill in poise and intelligence. In his major league debut, an umpire ejected him after he hit two consecutive Phillies hitters. In his third start, he hung an 0-fer on Barry Bonds when he was going for No. 756.

"That's a lot of controversy and pressure in your first three games. He handled it all," Acta said. "Then he goes seven innings against [Cy Young winner] Brandon Webb in a 1-0 game in Arizona. He's impressive."

Soon, the Nats will actually have so many pitchers with good '07 résumés that Acta is considering a six-man rotation with Hill, Tim Redding (2.86 ERA), rookies Lannan, Matt Chico and Joel Hanrahan (2.76), plus Bergmann when he returns.

"In two or three years, this organization may have too much starting pitching," reliever Ray King said. "Who would have believed it?"

Of those six potential starters, only Redding (29) is older than 26. It's just not going to be the same without Mike Bascik, Micah Bowie, Jason Simontacchi, Jerome Williams, Levale Speigner or Billy Traber in the rotation.

Once, it was assumed that hot prospects Collin Balester and No. 6 overall draft pick Ross Detwiler would have to be hurried to RFK in September, partly out of necessity. Now, all that's changed. "Why rush them?" said Kasten, grinning.

As a final twist, after Sept. 1, when rosters expand, the Nats will have the deepest, and perhaps best bullpen in baseball. Since July 1, Washington has the lowest bullpen ERA in baseball. Last night, Luis Ayala fanned the Phils' 3-4-5 hitters in his one inning. Chris Schroder (1.30 ERA in 27 2/3 innings) has drawn raves. Soon, Jesus Colome (4-0, 2.76) and Bowie (3.71 in relief) will come off the disabled list to join all the firehouse fun.

"I'll be able to give some rest to guys like [Jon] Rauch and [Saul] Rivera who have worked so much," said Acta, who saw Rauch allow three runs in the eighth last night to turn a 2-0 lead into a 3-2 defeat.

"We're getting healthier. We play a lot of tough teams down the stretch," Acta said. "But we're going to hurt somebody."

Before this season, the Nats brass conceded that 105 losses, and perhaps more, was a reasonable expectation. At least such misery would probably lock up the overall No. 1 pick in next year's draft.

"We're messing up our number one pick," Mark Lerner said. "But that's okay. We'd rather win."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company