July 26, 2021

Wilderness Days Yield to Surge

June 23, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Six years ago to the day, the Washington Nationals sat atop the National League East with a three game lead over the Braves. They would remain in first place in the summer of 2005 until July 26th. Since the end of July 2005, the Nationals have been lost in the wilderness, searching for team defense, starting pitching, a leadoff hitter, heck, just about the whole shebang.

Wilderness days may be coming to an end in Washington, DC. The Nationals have reached .500 and are in third place in the NL East, something that has not been said in June since that great run in the first year of the team’s move from Montreal.

They have found their team defense, that’s for certain. Based on team fielding percentage, double-plays turned and whatever indicator you may wish to trot out, the Nationals are in the top five defensively in the NL. The double play combination of Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa has to rank with the best in the game, at least for the last month or so. They look like keepers.

There is a lot of baseball left and the dog days are still ahead. In 2005 the knees of Livan Hernandez gave out and Nick Johnson began what was the first of many trips to the disabled list at the end of June. But this year the anchor of the team offensively is coming off the DL, not going on it.

Ryan Zimmerman has probably rushed himself back to the lineup before he is really game ready. As his throws from third base have shown, he is still feeling the effects of abdominal surgery. He has thrown 15 feet wide and high of second base on routine double-play balls and missed first base by almost as wide a margin on deep throws from third.

But Wall Street can rest easy. Zimmerman will regain his form. A bail out is not required. Defense is going to be the strong point for this team moving forward. Wilson Ramos has emerged as one of the best defensive catchers in the league under the watchful eye of Pudge, and while the outfield is not exemplary, neither is it shabby.

In 2005 the Nationals had a pitching threesome of John Patterson, Esteban Loaiza and Livan Hernandez. The team had a chance to win in every game those three took the mound and Chad Cordero–the Chief–was an All-Star. Washington had maybe the best pitching in the league at the break. Hard to remember, even harder to believe, but just the same, true.

Six years later and the team ERA is even lower. It is a down year for offense, as if the college bats were in use in the bigs. But the Washington staff is deeper overall and definitely holds more promise for the future.

Jordan Zimmermann is showing why Mike Rizzo turned down every trade offer for the young man in the off-season. He is near the top of the league in ERA–3.08–and also among the leaders in fewest walks allowed and most strikeouts per nine innings. Drew Storen is reminiscent of Chad Cordero in his efficiency in the ninth inning and he has emerged as one of the best closers in the NL, much as the Chief did in 2005.

Which is where Ryan Zimmerman comes in again. As good as the Nationals have been in the field and on the mound, they have been every bit as bad with the stick. Their team batting average was the worst in the league until their recent offensive surge. “Surge,” one of the great Washington, DC terms employed whenever things are going poorly.

Losing your mojo? What you need is a surge, baby!! And it is not cheaper in Canada, it is available over the counter, right here in DC. Ask any politician.

And that is what Ryan Zimmerman is going to deliver to the Nationals: a surge in offense. He is trying his best to keep up with the rest of the infield with the leather, but when he has the bat in hand, his game is much closer to game ready. Since his return from the DL on June 14, Zimmerman has had a hit in every game–until last night when he went 0-for-3 with a walk. The rust is there, but by the second half of the season, Zimmerman should be slugging the long ball along with Michael Morse and Danny Espinosa.

Will the Nationals be sellers or buyers at the trade deadline? It is the mantra of the trade rumor blogs, but Mike Rizzo recently said that the Nationals will not treat this trading deadline any differently than those in the past. If there is an offer that will improve the team, they will pull the trigger, but the Nationals are still building for next season.

In 1912 the Washington Nationals turned the corner from being the worst team in the American League to being among the league leaders. Clark Griffith built a winner in his first year with great team defense and a scrappy offense behind the best pitcher in the game, Walter Johnson. One hundred years later and the formula should look much the same. Great young pitching, defense and a consistent ability to score runs should make the Nationals into contenders going forward.

Will the wilderness years yield fond memories? Remembering Carlos Baerga writing his telephone number on baseballs and tossing them to the best looking young women behind the dugout will always be there for me. But would I trade those years for a winning team. Name your price. Just bring on the surge, Mr. Zimmerman. The Washington Nationals are here to stay, and you can put that one on the board, baby.

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