First Division Finish
No, the Nationals are not headed for the playoffs, and yes, the smug fans up the coast will shake their heads in bemusement at the joy we share at finishing in the top half of the 30 Major League baseball teams.
But remember and cheerish that grin, because the Nationals don’t just “hear that train a coming,” It’s not just “rolling round the bend,” No, the Nationals are on that train, they have busted out of Folsom Prison and the hungry, happy bunch are headed for town. So be watchful, might want to lock the doors and windows starting in 2012.
Stephen Strasburg put the exclamation point on the end of the season yesterday with ten strikeouts over six innings of one-hit ball. He hit the 100 mph mark for one of the few times this season, late in the game. Then the bullpen shut down the Marlins–who are escaping their own prison–and with a 3-1 triumph the Nationals finished just a single game under .500 with 80 wins.
What was memorable was the finish. After a dreadful August swoon that saw the team lose nine of ten games, suddenly they started believing Davey Johnson’s lament that, “this team is better than this.” It started remarkably enough with the return of Strazz.
Strasburg made his first start on September 6. The buzz of that game spread throughout the team and got them to see what they might look like in 2012 with a rotation headed by the very talented, goateed wonder from San Diego.
Not since the Washington Senators of 1969 finished with a flourish that put the team ten games over .500 has another DC baseball team finished as well. That team found itself in the second half and Frank Howard and Mike Epstein provided awesome punch and Dick Bosman won the ERA title over Jim Palmer. Their September record was almost identical to that of the 2011 Nationals as each team was strongest in the final month.
I know a little something about the 1969 Senators team. Ted Williams was the manager and he thought he had found the spark to get guys like Howard and Bosman to play to their full potential. At the end of that miracle season, Williams went to the owner, Bob Short, with a list of trades he wanted to make. If Short had really wanted to build a winner, he would have listened. But that was then, this is now. The Lerner family do not intend to make their money in baseball by selling the team to the highest out-of-town bidder. They intend to make it the old-fashioned way.
They proved they wanted a winner when they signed Stephen Strasburg. He can be even better than Dick Bosman was in 1969 as his 1.50 ERA attests for his short season stint in 2011. The rest of Nationals rotation–most of them only a year removed from surgury–has similar potential. Chien-Ming Wang may be almost as key as Strasburg. The former Yankee star won his last three starts for Washington and flashed that old form as he gave up only six runs over 18 innings. It is hoped and expected that Wang will sign with the Nationals for 2012.
Jordan Zimmermann is the last piece. He began to look dominant as well in 2011 and if these three pitchers can stay healthy for much of the 2012 season, they will give the Nationals as good a threesome as almost anyone in the National League. They have John Lannan and young pitchers like Ross Detwiler and Brad Peacock to fill out the rest of the rotation more than ably. There is even more certainty in a bullpen of Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and Henry Rodriguez.
So what do the Nationals need other than the return of Stephen Strasburg to anchor the rotation?
They need the offense that finally began to form in the final weeks of the season. They need Ryan Zimmerman to be healthy all season to man the three-hole in front of Michael Morse of the 31 homers in 2011. But more than anything they need players like Danny Espinosa, Ian Desmond, and Wilson Ramos to continue to grow and mature into the star potential they flashed at times.
Desmond hit .303/.336/.450 in September, but hit .223/.264/.308 for the first half. Danny Espinosa hit 16 of his 21 homers in the first half and slumped thereafter. So the youngsters need to find consistency and find it on the plus side.
The off-season will hold considerable excitement for the Nationals. Will they re-sign Wang or go after C.J. Wilson? Can they do both? Will they trade for the leadoff hitter they so badly need, or just sign another outfield bat? How these questions are answered will spell the future for the Nationals.
But whatever changes are made, the team is gathering steam. When the 1969 Senators pulled into Union Station, thousands were on hand to cheer. Since then there hasn’t been anything like it, but I swear I can hear the jaws hitting the ground in Boston and Philly even now.