When this season started, I thought the Nationals might well win about 72 games this year. An improvement over last year’s tally of 69, but hardly a big step forward. With four games remaining, the Nationals are 77-80, still in reach of .500 ball. The Nationals are 14-9 in September, their best span of the second half, and have been playing meaningful baseball in September for the first time since 2005. While winning out isn’t a given, with Atlanta playing for their lives, and the dominance of the Marlins over the Nats, it’s still a distinct possibility that this team could finish at 81-80.
Today’s victory over the Braves can largely be placed in the hands of the battery, with Chien Ming Wang throwing 6 strong innings and limiting the Braves to a single run, and Pudge Rodriguez’s eighth inning rally-killing theft-prevention throwout of Michael Bourn. The veteran catcher’s final home start of the year (and possibly in a Nationals uniform) was certainly one of his more memorable ones, calling a phenomenal game against the very tough Braves offense, and nabbing two runners on the basepaths, as well going 1-2 with a walk.
After the game, manager Davey Johnson was very complimentary of both. Of Wang, he said, “[he had] a remarkable season, got better every time out… If I’m here [next year] he can have my salary. If you’d seen him throw in December, and where he is right now, my hat goes off to him.” Regarding his catcher, Johnson was praising of his training routine (5 hours a day, 7 days a week), and gave no thought to pulling Pudge early for a standing ovation.
Wang’s use of his sinker was masterful today, fooling batter after batter. Though he rang up just 4 strikeouts, Wang used his sinker to position the count in his favor, throughout the day. Even if the batter were to jump on one of the sinkers, it was so low in the zone the best you could hope for is a single where Espinosa or Desmond couldn’t reach. Wang held the Braves to four hits through six innings, effectively silencing the heart of their order, keeping Jones Uggla, and McCann to just 2-7. His only mistake was to Freddie Freeman, who just barely got a sinker into the center field stands.
Heading into free agency, Wang is in good position to command a deal, but I’d have to think the Nationals won’t let him far away. It sure looks as if the manager wants him back, enough to give up his own salary to get him, and that has to mean something to the front office. While the team does appear to be scouting Texas’ C.J. Wilson, they can’t let someone of Wang’s caliber go, especially given the recovery he’s made in the last year.
The Nationals send Ross Detwiler out to the bump in tomorrow’s home finale against the Braves, who will send rookie Mike Minor to face him. The Braves’ magic number is down to 3, but with just 4 games remaining in the season, they’ve got to be getting a little nervous about the resurgent St. Louis Cardinals. To see the Nationals spoil their playoff bid, well, I can’t say I’d complain too much.
The Nationals drew 33,986 for Saturday’s game, quite a crowd for a day when college football was on, and the Caps Convention was drawing a massive crowd downtown. Included in that number, according to Nationals PR staff, were 587 canines, whose owners bought them tickets. The Nationals have averaged 1,500 more fans per game this year than last, which has to make Nationals’ COO Andrew Feffer a happy man. The $1 and $2 tickets can’t have hurt things, either. Overall, the Nationals are drawing just over 24,000 fans per outing on average, which still puts them in the bottom tier of MLB teams. Still, the increased draw is something that the manager and players are noticing, said Davey Johnson before the game Saturday: “I know it’s a football town, I follow the Redskins too and my son-in-law has been a Redskins fan his whole life, but I know there are a lot of good baseball people here looking for high caliber baseball and I think if we keep performing like we’re performing we’ll get more of them to come out. I’m excited and I know a lot of fans around Baltimore and Washington are excited.”
During the Presidents’ Race in the fourth inning, Jayson Werth, Rick Ankiel and the Bullpen did their dead-level best to give Teddy the advantage. No President finished the race, and it was Werth himself that broke the tape. After the game, Werth told reporters he was the last remaining member of the Bull Moose party, as it was pretty clear that the front office staff had no idea what was happening. Running into Tom Davis, the Nationals’ on-field entertainment director, after the game, he looked a bit green, as if he’d seen his entire life flash before his eyes as the players interfered. One game remains in the 2011 home season, who knows what might happen tomorrow.
On a personal note, it’s an incredible pleasure to sit in the press box at Nationals Park. Thanks very much to Evelyn and Allison, who make sure we get in okay, to the Nationals PR staff, including Joanna Comfort, Alexandra Schauffler, Bill Gluvna, Mike Gazda and John Dever, and the folks we share Bloggers’ Row with, including Cheryl and Dave Nichols from Nats News Network, Patrick Reddington of Federal Baseball (SBN), Ben Lasky of the American Eagle, Mike Henderson of Nats Daily News, and Will Yoder of The Nats Blog. There are some absolutely stellar professional beat writers and reporters that cover this team, and they are Bill Ladson of MLB.com, Craig Heist of WTOP, Ben Goessling of MASN, Mark Zuckerman of Nats Insider and CSN Washington, Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post, Brian McNally of the Examiner, and Amanda Comak of the Washington Times. Special hat tip to MASN Editor Pete Kerzel, also, who features the work of our Rachel Levitin as part of their guest blogger series. It’s a pleasure to work among such friendly, talented, and generous people. Thanks so much for a great 2011 season.