CHICAGO – In the last four days the Nationals have proven a lot of things but the main one is this: they’re nothing if not interesting.
They’ve seen their manager resign, their bench coach take over – and then he himself make the difficult decision to step down – a 14-inning win with a quick turnaround and, finally, the naming of a new manager. Through it all, they’ve continued to win.
Saturday afternoon’s shutout aside (amazing to think this this team has still been shutout 10 times this season with the way they’ve played this month) the Nationals are on a tear unlike any other team in the major leagues. They’ve lost just twice in the last 17 days. They are 17-7 in the month of June and, perhaps even more remarkably, eight of their wins this month have come when they’ve scored two runs or less.
Thinking back to the team that played the first two months of the season it sounds strange to say, but the Nationals have seemingly forgotten how to lose.
Most of the time when a team goes through a managerial shuffle in the middle of the season it’s because the team is playing poorly. The new guy is generally expected to shake things up, inject a winning attitude – a la Jack McKeon’s task in Florida. But when Davey Johnson takes over as Nationals manager tonight in Anaheim, chances are he’s likely to slide in and try to go as unnoticed as possible. The Nationals are winning because of pitching, defense and timely hitting. Why change?
A few observations before I board my flight to Anaheim:
– John McLaren’s presence is certainly going to be missed. There wasn’t a single player in that clubhouse who didn’t sing the praises of McLaren this weekend. McLaren spent much of his time as the Nationals’ bench coach flying under the radar but his impact on the players was clear as they prepared to say their goodbyes to him both publicly and privately. When the final out was made Sunday, every player lined up to give McLaren a hug before they headed back into the visitors clubhouse at U.S. Cellular Field.
It was clear it was difficult for McLaren to leave the on-field coaching staff but it was what he felt he had to do after promising former manager Jim Riggleman that he would stand by him.
“It’s sad,” said left-hander Sean Burnett of McLaren’s departure. “It’s unfortunate for him. One man’s decision affects other people’s lives. It’s sad to think about it like that but that’s the way it was and everyone here has handled it the best they could. It’s unfortunate he’s leaving us as manager, coach, but he’s still going to be in the organization and we’ll still see him.”
– Heading into the season, much like years past, it was all but assumed the Nationals would get just one All-Star representative. While the way the All-Star starters are chosen are a topic for another time, as we head into the final week before the teams are announced I have to say that I’d be surprised if the Nationals don’t get more than one rep.
Michael Morse, Danny Espinosa, Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen, Jordan Zimmermann and Jason Marquis, to some extent, could all make a case that they should be a candidate for the team. In my opinion, speculating about it is a fruitless exercise because unless that player is voted in by fans (which isn’t going to happen) it’s all up to player vote and coach’s decision.
Here’s a look at the season stats of each, though, while we’re on the topic:
Morse: .300 BA, .352 OBP, .546 SLG, .898 OPS, 14 HR, (career-high) 45 RBI,
Espinosa: .242 BA, .323 OBP, .466 SLG, .788 OPS, 14 HR, (team-leading) 47 RBI
Clippard: 2.00 ERA, 21 Holds, only 6 of 31 inherited runners scored (19%) 57 K in 45 IP, 4 blown saves, .166 opponent BA
Storen: 2.90 ERA, 19 saves, .188 opponent BA, 32 K in 40 1/3 IP, 3 blown saves
Jordan Zimmermann: 5-6, 2.85 ERA, 12 quality starts, highest average game score on the staff (57), .242 opponent BA, 67 K, only 4 HR allowed
Jason Marquis: 7-2, 3.53 ERA, .272 opponent BA, .800 team win percentage in his starts, 54 K
– One remarkable note about what the Nationals have done in the month of June is that they’ve done it largely without the production of Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman. Werth is hitting just .163 in June with a .300 slugging percentage. He still walks an awful lot, giving him a .313 on-base percentage in spite of those two other ugly numbers but suffice it to say he’s not making contact certainly as well as he’d like, nor as well as he’s expected to. Zimmerman’s only been back playing for two weeks and while his impact on the lineup and a presence alone can’t be ignored, he’s hitting just .167 with a .196 on-base and a .278 slugging since returning to the lineup.
Amazingly the team is 17-7 in the month in spite of those numbers which is a credit to the team’s 3.66 ERA for their starters this season and a 3.04 ERA for their relievers. Those numbers have been even better in June with an overall staff ERA of 2.56.
The new man in charge makes his debut in a few hours. He comes in with a winning track record, a phenomenal pedigree and extreme support from the organization. We’ll soon find out if he can keep the Nationals doing exactly what they’re doing.