David Huzzard: This time, Nats winning without smoke and mirrors

On September 17, 2005, the Nationals stood at 77-71 and had a 5-0 lead entering the bottom of the ninth against the San Diego Padres. Since entering the All-Star break with a record of 52-36 and 2 1/2-game lead in the National League East, the Nationals had fallen back to fourth place and stood eight games back in the division. The wild card was vaguely in reach, but it would take a near miracle run to claim it. If they could take this series against the Padres, they could get back in the race.

Barely clinging to life and desperate for a win, one stood three outs away. Jason Bergman started the bottom of the ninth with a walk and a strikeout before being lifted for Joey Eischen, who would get a fly ball out before giving up a single to Xavier Nady. Manager Frank Robinson would then lift Eischen to bring in Travis Hughes, who would promptly give up an RBI single that brought the Padres within four.

With two outs and runners first and second, Robinson brought in the Nats’ always-dependable closer, Chad Cordero. All he had to do was get one out before giving up four runs. The way the season had gone, this looked like a lock, but Cordero walked the first batter he faced, bringing the tying run to the plate. That tying run was low-OBP middle infielder Khalil Greene. Only one outcome could tie the game, and it was the least likely of all outcomes. In 2005, Greene would finish the season with 15 home runs in 436 at-bats. There was a 3.2 percent chance he would hit a grand slam, but that is exactly what happened and, to this day, that moment stands as the symbolic end to the hope of the 2005 season.

In their remaining 13 games, the Nationals would go 4-9 and limp to an 81-81 finish. They have never finished .500 since. All the Nationals have known from that point onward is losing - until now. Thanks to a pitching staff that leads the majors in ERA, runs per game, HR/9, and WHIP, as well as ranking in the top 10 in many other categories, the 2012 Nationals stand 53-36 after 89 games.

The big difference between the 2005 Nats and the 2012 Nats is that these Nats deserve to be this good. Through 89 games, they have scored 370 runs and allowed 305, which gives them an expected winning percentage of .595, on pace for 96 wins, and dead even with their actual winning percentage. Through 89 games, the 2005 Nationals had an actual winning percentage of .584 and an expected winning percentage of .492, having scored 359 runs and allowed 365.

The fact that the 2005 Nats were outscored indicated that they were a mirage, and there were other hints all season long. Through the first half of the season, the 2005 Nats won an exorbitant amount of one-run games. So many, in fact, that they earned themselves a first-half nickname of the “one-run wonders” and a second half one of the “one-run blunders” when things evened out. With a record of 18-15 in one-run games, the 2012 Nats are nearly immune to the evening out effect.

There are other differences between the 2012 Nats and the 2005 vintage. The 2012 Nats are the third-youngest team offensively with an average age of 27.3 and the youngest on the pitching side with an average age of 27.1. The 2005 Nats ranked in the middle of baseball with an average offensive age of 29.3 and an average pitching age of 28.9. A further difference on the pitching side is that the 2005 Nats used 15 starters while the 2012 Nats will be using their seventh starting pitcher Saturday when John Lannan starts against the Braves as part of a doubleheader. If it wasn’t for a managerial decision to put Chien-Mind Wang in the rotation over Ross Detwiler, the Nats could have made it to this point using only five starting pitchers.

There is the thought that the Nationals have been here before, but the 2005 Nats won with smoke and mirrors. They had no right to be as good as they were, while the 2012 Nats have earned every victory. All stats indicate that these Nationals should maintain. This time around, it isn’t an illusion, and the only way the Nats don’t make it to prosperity is if something goes terribly wrong.

David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals for Citizens of Natstown, and offers his viewpoints as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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