Nobody's perfect. It's baseball; the Miami Dolphins don't play this sport. Yesterday at RFK was a good example of why good teams sometimes lose -- and, yes, the Nationals are a good team. After a weekend in Chicago when they played as if they couldn't be beaten maybe for the rest of this week at least, when their fans could not be faulted for hoping to celebrate a seventh straight win on the Fourth of July, the Nats lost to the Mets. But as the manager, Frank Robinson, said afterward: "One ballgame. What are we going to do, push the panic button? C'mon."
There was a reason they lost. Their relief pitchers left their arms in Chicago. Gary Majewski, Hector Carrasco and Joey Eischen simply weren't available, they had been worked so hard recently. The Nats had too dog-tired a bullpen to hold a 2-0 lead, and by the time they finished wobbling around under a blazing sun in the top of the ninth inning, they were too far behind to overcome the Mets' 5-2 margin. It's no reason -- not yet anyway -- to think the law of averages is going to catch up with the Nationals. They are still 26-7 in their last 33 games.
At the risk of sounding provincial, I would say it's all right to keep on cheering without restraint for the home team, dream impossible dreams and stop worrying about the Nats fading in the National League East standings in the second half of the season. Enjoy. Not only is baseball back in Washington after 33 lost seasons, this team has treated its new fans to a half-season that rivals some of the best half-seasons in major league history. If that sounds preposterous, that's how it is.
Just to name a few teams that got on a roll, consider the 1978 Yankees, the 1964 Cardinals, the 1951 Giants and, yes, the 1914 Braves -- the "Miracle Braves." Granted all those teams were extremely talented. Granted they got a move on in the second half of the season, and it meant a pennant or a World Series championship. And maybe here in July, the patched-together Nationals' better days are already behind them. But, really, 18 games above .500 at essentially baseball's half-mile pole is more than anyone dreamed possible. The Nats have turned the standings upside down and even started talk of them playing in October. Even if it turns out that they aren't the second coming of the "Miracle Braves," so what. What they've done should qualify as half a "miracle."
"Is this fun or what?" said Hank Allen, the former Senator and now a scout for the Milwaukee Brewers. "I enjoy myself every time I come out here."
And maybe there's more to come. Just wondering what the Nats might do next beats the alternative that Washington had been stuck with since 1971.
Yesterday, the city's homely old park was resurrected and filled almost to capacity, 44,331, a crowd full of life. Even if most came hoping for a victory, perhaps even expecting one, they still saw a few examples of why the Nats are in first place. Take Carlos Baerga. What major league team would have taken him before the start of the season? But here he was, a second baseman nearing the end of his career playing first base. Depending on how you count, he is the Nats' second- or third-string first baseman. He is an extremely small target for infielders to hit with a throw. He doesn't have much speed. But he's a steadying veteran influence, and a bit more.
Check this out: In the third inning, he turns completely around on a foul pop by Mike Cameron and, after running as fast as he can with his back to home plate, the only Nat with a chance to get the ball way back in foul ground, makes the catch -- the ball drops out of the sky and plops into his glove -- to retire the Mets.
In the eighth, he scoops a throw out of the dirt for an out, a la John Olerud.
How can this be?
Live for the day, it's the only way. Pedro Martinez pitches tonight for the Mets.
Yet one of the Nats' unexpected beauties is, they can't be counted out just because someone like Pedro takes the hill. What would have been the odds on them sweeping three over the weekend at Wrigley? "There's no way they should have won that game" Sunday, said Larry Luftig, a Mets fan from New York, waiting to get inside RFK with his son, Adam, 12. "You have a great story going on here."
The story is built on improbability, an accumulation of unexpected occurrences. In baseball, they call it "the little things." Baerga hustling for an unlikely catch. Reserve shortstop Jamey Carroll making a brilliant pickup and throw in extra innings Sunday to keep the Nats alive (with Baerga on the receiving end at first). Pitcher Ryan Drese plucked off waivers -- the new Camilo Pascual, possibly? When Matt Cepicky pinch-hit yesterday, he became the 44th player to appear in a game for Washington this season. So many of these players have come with only modest expectations, which has made the first-half success so unexpected, so enjoyable.
The Chicago White Sox would be the best story in baseball so far this season, if it hadn't been for the Nats. Both teams depend on pitching, defense and just enough hitting. They both resemble the 1959 White Sox, who won the American League pennant with "little ball." Those White Sox, however, were a proven team, a second-place finisher in '58. These Nats are from out of the blue, roughly half of them newly added, the other half seemingly refreshed and pleased to have a new home -- instead of homes in both Montreal and Puerto Rico.
Robinson looks as if he's feeling young, even if he walks like his feet hurt.
"We won six in a row before today. It's not the end of the world," said right-hander John Patterson, who allowed two runs over six innings. "We'll win six in a row starting tomorrow."
With a tip of the cap to the '73 Mets, you gotta believe (I suppose). Even if Pedro's pitching.