Sunday September 6, 2009
On Friday night the Washington Nationals were mathematically eliminated from any chance of making into the post-season when they lost to the Florida Marlins. Going into Saturday night's game, the Nats were 46-89 which means they are on a pace to lose 107 games. They lost bringing their current losing streak to eight-straight; a season high in a season of lows.
On Sunday afternoon third baseman Ryan Zimmerman came up for the Nats in the bottom of the ninth with one on and none out, trailing the Marlins 4-3 when he parked one in the right field stands for a two-run walk-off homer.
The dugout emptied of the mostly 20-something millionaires who were on their way to their ninth-straight loss in a season which has been known for lots of losing streaks and all too few wins. The scrum formed around home plate and, when Zimmerman trotted around third you could - even from the press box which is about halfway between the Earth and the moon - see his eyes widen as he prepared for the good-natured pelting he was about to receive.
Although I think I am alone in this assessment, I believe Zimmerman's home run may have saved the job of interim manager Jim Riggleman who over the team following the firing of Manny Acta at the All-Star break.
The Nationals have been an awful baseball team this year, but I thought nine-straight losses might be more than the team ownership could bear especially, as the Washington Times' beat writer, Mark Zuckerman pointed out, of the Nats final 27 games, "21 are against teams still in contention: the Marlins, Philadelphia Phillies, Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves."
For a while, after Riggleman took over the team, it looked like the Nationals might overtake either the Kansas City Royals or the Pittsburgh Pirates as MLB's worst team. But it didn't happen and it will not happen now. The biggest single reason is the loss of centerfielder Nyjer Morgan to a broken hand during a game in Chicago on August 27.
Morgan started the season with the Pirates but got traded to the Nationals at the end of June. In the 51 games the Nationals played with Morgan on their roster (he appeared in 49 of the 51 games) they won 23 games and lost 28 a .451 winning percentage. In the 84 games without Morgan on the active roster, the Nats (following Sunday's win) are 25-61 - a .291 winning percentage.
Over the course of a 162 game season .431 would translate into 73 wins and 89 losses. Playing .291 ball would have produced a season record of 47-115; a difference of 26 wins.
A good deal of the credit for the Nat's improvement following the All-Star break went to interim manager Jim Riggleman, but it now appears it was having Nyjer Morgan leading off, stealing bases, upsetting opposing pitchers and generally making things happen that was the real difference. As the Nationals' lead-off hitter, Morgan batted .351 and stole 24 bases in 31 attempts. The Nationals are 8-1 since Morgan left the line-up.
The majority of the Nationals' pitching staff should be learning their craft in the minors; but, because of injuries and athletic failures, the kids have been called up and forced to pitch at a level for which many are simply not ready.
As former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld might have said if he were managing the Nationals, "You go into the game with the pitchers you have, not the pitchers you wish you had."
It looks as if Jim Riggleman will finish the 2009 season at the helm of the Nationals. It looks as if the Nationals will lose about 110 games and will again have the number one pick in next summer's draft.
The crowds are thin. The season is a bust. It may well take until the 2011 season for the pitching staff to grow into its talent.
But when Zimmerman came up in the bottom of the ninth and hit that home run it was as good as the New York Giants' Bobby Thompson's walk-off homer against the Brooklyn Dodgers nearly 58 years earlier. I wanted to jump up and yell, as Russ Hodges did in his broadcast of that home run "the Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!" but (a) there is a rule against openly rooting in the press box and (b) I am looked upon at as enough of an oddity without someone feeling the need to inform me that the Giants have not, in fact, won the pennant.
Zimmerman's home run reminded Nationals' fans why they came to the ball park. And why they will come again in 2010. Zimmerman will be back, as will Adam Dunn and, ahead of them in the lineup, Nyjer Morgan will be getting on base and driving opposing pitchers crazy.
-- Rich Galen