Nationals Can Point to the Day It Turned Around

The Nationals head into Atlanta having won 12 of their last 16 games under interim manager Jim Riggleman, thanks in large part to improved defense.
The Nationals head into Atlanta having won 12 of their last 16 games under interim manager Jim Riggleman, thanks in large part to improved defense. (By Haraz N. Ghanbari -- Associated Press)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Baseball, almost by rule, does not allow for much misdirection; its season has the relentless stamina of an interrogator, driving every team toward the capital-T truth. By late July, you know the playoff contenders. You know the also-rans. You know that any team with a sub-.300 winning percentage attained its badness with a rich, steady merit.

You also know that such a lousy team will not set off on a winning streak so long that it calls into question the implications of everything beforehand. The truth was there, damning and bold, on July 24, when the Washington Nationals committed four errors and lost for the 68th time in 96 games, dropping their winning percentage to .292. That setback, to the Padres, set them for a 115-loss pace. The Nationals, at that point, were the surest, saddest thing in baseball.

So mark the line: July 24.

That night, a furious Jim Riggleman entered the Washington clubhouse, ripped his team for its effort and later huffed about his players: "They'll get on board. They will." The next afternoon, the Nationals began a historic deviation from historically bad baseball. Though their present eight-game winning streak attracts the most attention, they have also won 12 of 16 since July 25 -- a larger sample size that only makes their initial incompetence all the more confounding. On pace just weeks ago for a 47-win season, the Nationals have now won 40. They trail the 29th-poorest team, Kansas City, by just 3 1/2 games. The team with five wins in April, nine in May, nine in June and nine in July now has eight wins in August.

The reversal is almost unprecedented: The Nationals, who go for their ninth straight win Tuesday night in Atlanta, were 40 games under .500 when the streak began. Only one team in history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, ran off a winning streak longer than eight after hitting the 40-games-under mark. That was the 1890 Cleveland Spiders.

"Well, the conclusions I can draw -- we do have some good, core players we can build around," acting general manager Mike Rizzo said. "I don't believe we're nearly as far away as our record indicates of being a capable ballclub." Though Rizzo acknowledged that "we are probably not as good as we look on this winning streak," he added, "I don't think we're performing over our heads right now."

For all the improbability of Washington's recent play, it extends from measurable elements. All at once, the team is hitting and fielding. Its relief pitching has stabilized. Those factors, pushed together, have been powerful enough to compensate for some shaky starting pitching.

Entering July 25, the Nationals had committed errors in 58 of their 96 games. In 16 games since, they've gone errorless 13 times -- and their five errors in that span rank best in the National League. Since July 25, the bullpen has a 3.32 ERA. The Nationals have scored 113 runs in that stretch, 20 more than the next-closest team. Also in that stretch: The Nationals have four of baseball's 10 leaders in slugging percentage. Cristian Guzmán has multiple hits in 11 of his 14 starts. Adam Dunn is hitting .347. Josh Willingham is hitting .386 with five homers. Ryan Zimmerman is hitting .456, with eight home runs in 57 at-bats -- a pace that would give him, oh, about 77 in a 550-at-bat season.

Statistics, of course, lend a context to the turnaround, but not necessarily an explanation for why it happened. Those drawing the timeline begin with the June 30 trade acquisition of Nyjer Morgan, who has the range to patrol a mall parking lot, let alone the middle third of the outfield. "He has made the entire team a better defensive club," Rizzo said.

Then, during the all-star break, the Nationals fired Manny Acta, replacing him with Riggleman. Washington's interim manager has shown an increased willingness to appear in the clubhouse, in turns chatting and prodding. He has implemented a longer pregame fielding practice. Occasionally, he has been more critical as well.

With Riggleman, the fielding improved. The pitching -- finally solidified after months of Rizzo's roster reshuffling -- gained confidence in the defense. Veterans such as Zimmerman and Dunn gained confidence in the defense and the pitching. The Nationals collected a few wins. And voila: Winning bred winning.

"The offense was never a question," Dunn said. "It was our defense."

"The biggest thing is, we're playing defense," Zimmerman said. "It's hard to win when you give the other team more than 27 outs."

The significance of Washington's recent run has a limit. At most, it has turned a hapless team into a flawed but hopeful one. When Riggleman took over, he preached modest goals. He wanted the Nationals to relinquish the No. 30 spot in baseball's error rankings. (They still have it.) He wanted them to, just maybe, chase a team ahead of them. (They still trail the fourth-place Mets in the National League East by 12 1/2 games.)

Still, Washington's run has detoured the 2009 campaign away from history. On July 24, the Nationals kept company -- in the statistical depths of D.C. baseball -- only with the 1909 Senators, who went 42-110-4, never winning more than three in a row. By late July of that year, the summer indulged few surprises. As The Washington Post's J. Ed Grillo wrote after a July 27 doubleheader, "Just to vary their daily performance, the Nationals lost two games yesterday, instead of one."

Over the past few weeks, the Nationals varied their daily performance by winning eight straight games and 12 of 16, raising their winning percentage to .357. They are now on pace for a 58-104 record. But that pace, as we've learned, is subject to surprise.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company