Nats end season with seven game winning streak

The 2009 regular season is in the books for the Nationals. They ended the final week with a bang. They won the last seven games, sweeping the Mets at Nationals Park with a Justin Maxwell walk-off grand slam and the Braves at Turner Field. Of course, baseball has a stat for everything and the Nationals became the first team in Major League history to lose the first seven games of the season and win the last seven games.

 

Game 162 lasted four hours and 18 minutes, went 15 innings, with a combined 41 players used, 425 pitches thrown, 26 hits and only three runs. That’s baseball. The Nats took a 2-1 lead when Alberto Gonzalez singled to center to score Elijah Dukes in the top of the 15th.

 

It was a meaningless game that meant everything. With Pete Orr playing third base, Mike Morse playing first base and Jorge Padilla playing left, the Nats made game 162 a memorable moment.

 

“This is going to be my strongest memory,” reliever Ron Villone said. “I haven’t been involved in a World Series, but I’ve never been in a game on the last day of the season like this — the way we turned things around. We didn’t accomplished what we wanted, but we went out there, battled and left it all out there.”

 

The Nationals are hoping the 2010 season brings many more winning streaks like this one that closed out the 2009 campaign, more dramatic victories and October baseball to NatsTown.

 

It may happen sooner than you think.

 

The storm clouds–literally (22 games totaling 2,460 minutes of delayed, suspended and postponed baseball) and figuratively–will eventually roll away from Nationals Park. The 2010 season is next and the forecast is favorable.

 

True, the Nationals didn’t look like a contender in 2009. Still, there is a growing sense of progress within the Nationals organization that has spawned optimism about 2010. So how does a team with consecutive 100-plus loss seasons turn it around? Well, it helps to first see them as a 71 win team, the pace the team has kept since the All-Star Break. That turns the math from calculus to simple subtraction. The magic number to win a wild card or a division varies each year but 90-91 wins almost certainly secures a spot. Plenty of teams have improved 20.0 games in one season. It is less of a feat than the 31.0 game improvement completed by the Rays in 2008, they too had the worst record in the Majors the year before.

 

The Rays aren’t the only team to complete a 180 degree turnaround in one season. In 1999, the Diamondbacks improved 35.0 games. The Giants improved 31.0 games in 1993. Since 1991, seven NL teams and two AL teams completed the climb from cellar to Division Champion. The Nats would gladly settle for the Wild Card. Nationals President Stan Kasten keeps 1991 close to his heart. It provides an immediate rebuttal to anyone who says it can’t happen. He references the 1991 Braves when looking at the Nationals future. He joined both franchises, the Braves in ’87 and the Nationals in ’06, at a similar stage in the building process–the bottom. He is using the same building principles and philosophies with the Nats that helped orchestrate an unprecedented 12 straight division titles from 1991-2003 under his watch with the Braves.

 

In 1990, the Minnesota Twins finished last in the AL West Division with a 74-88 record and the

Atlanta Braves finished with the worst record in the Majors at 65-97. In 1991, two teams went from worst to first, the Twins won 95 games and the Braves won 94. It took seven games to determine the World Series Champion.

 

There is a stark difference between opportunity and achievement–it separates a team from a 70-

92 record from a team with a 92-70 record. The Nats know that. They know what has to happen if they want to be celebrating with champagne at the end of September.

 

The bullpen is bolstered.

This will be the Nationals main priority. They had 20 blown saves and posted a 5.71 ERA at the All-Star break. They have revamped the relief corp and there is only one bullpen pitcher left from Opening Day. They only blew five in the second half of the season.

 

“I think it’s a major point of emphasis for the offseason,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “We have gotten better. We have many more capable hearts than we did at the beginning of the season. But I’m certainly not satisfied with it.”

 

Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard have been nice additions. Mike MacDougal has provided stability out of the closer’s role that was missing earlier in the season. Who stays, who leaves is still a question mark but a bullpen makes or breaks a potential playoff ballclub in September.

 

The young guns lose… young.

Kasten points to future Hall of Fame pitchers John Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine’s collective sub-.500 record their first two years in the Majors when talking about young pitchers struggling early in their careers–almost all pitchers experience growing pains.

 

“I think our young pitchers have kind of grown up right in front of our eyes and offensively we have hit our stride,” Adam Dunn said. “It’s going to be fun next year… It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

 

The Nationals have watched their young guns John Lannan, Jordan Zimmermann (out for the

2010 season), Ross Detwiler, Shairon Martis, Craig Stammen, J.D. Martin, Collin Balester and Garrett Mock experience it firsthand. But all of them have shown signs of promise this year. The starters posted a 3.86 ERA in the month of June. At least three of them need to lose the “young”

moniker in 2010.

 

The defense turns hits into outs.

The Nats will be searching for a free agent field general up the middle. Their defense has drastically improved since the All-Star break but their shortstop-second baseman combo committed the most errors in the Majors this season. That isn’t a formula for success. “It’s hard to win,” Ryan Zimmerman said, “when you give the other team more than 27 outs.” Dunn has smoothly transitioned to first base and Zimmerman is a Gold Glove caliber player at the hot corner. Nyjer Morgan solidified a place in center field for the coming years and covers more ground than Rock Creek Park.

 

What is good gets better.

The Nationals defining moment of the 2009 season happened off the field, tucked behind home plate, adjacent to the Lexus Presidents Club, in the press conference room at 4 p.m. on April 20. The soft-spoken, clean-cut Zimmerman–with the stroke of a pen–became a National for the next five years. Add Dunn and Josh Willingham to the mix and you have a ferocious heart of the order that will carry the offense. “We’ve got a lot of guys that are in their prime offensively and if we can continue to make progress in pitching and defense,” Dunn said, “that’s the formula to go from last to first.”

 

Stephen Strasburg and Drew Storen become the wild card.

Someday the 2009 First-Year Player Draft might be viewed as the turning point for the Nationals. Time will tell but it has left a strong first impression. The Nationals used their 2009 compensation pick (No. 10 overall) to draft Storen, a closer, who had a sensational first season in the Minor Leagues. Strasburg and Storen will pitch in the Arizona Fall League this October and will get a chance to make the team out of Spring Training. During the 1991 season in Atlanta, left-handed pitcher Steve Avery was the X-factor. The third overall pick in the 1988 First-Year Player Draft went 3-11 in 1990. He had a sensational sophomore season as a 21-year-old and went 18-8.

 

A veteran pitcher arrives.

The team picked up the rubber armed Livan Hernandez to eat innings in September. Will he pitch for the Nats in 2010? The Nats believe the additions of Dunn, Willingham and Morgan will attract a veteran pitcher and persuade them that it is the beginning of a good, exciting ballclub.

 

“We have to have a special type of veteran pitcher, who is willing to give of himself as a

teacher and mentor type of guy,” Rizzo said. “We have to get a team-oriented person, a person that is going to give his time and his knowledge. It’s not an easy task.”

 

The Nats task isn’t easy. Baseball teams can’t be built overnight and turnarounds aren’t instant, seamless and easy. It takes time, a lot of it. The Rays endured 10 consecutive seasons of losing. The Braves had seven straight losing seasons before 1991. But then it clicks and it will click eventually. So consider yourself warned because the future is bright and the Nationals are primed to put Washington back on the baseball map in 2010.

 

 

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