ATLANTA — For the sixth time this season, the Nationals reached the .500 mark with their 7-3 extra-innings victory over the Braves last night.
It wasn’t just any win. It was one where the Nationals, who hadn’t been able to generate much of anything offensively to that point, went 6-for-13 from the ninth innings on. They used three different third basemen, 20 members of their 25-man roster and ever position player on their bench.
But it was worth it.
“Words can’t describe how much we needed that win right there,” said shortstop Ian Desmond.
So what does being .500 at this point mean? They’re roughly 20 percent of the way through the season and despite starting the road trip by getting swept by the Philadelphia Phillies, they’re suddenly back on pace to win 81 games this season with two straight series victories.
“Until you just said that, I hadn’t thought about taking the series,” Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said Wednesday night. “We’re trying to win that game. You try to win that game and you’re not really thinking of the series because if that’s your goal you don’t even show up tomorrow. We’re just trying to win games, period.”
In the past six years since baseball returned to Washington, the Nationals have been over .500 just twice after the season’s 36th game. The first time was their inaugural season, when they were 19-17 at this point and finished 81-81. Obviously, that was the closest they’ve ever been to a winning season.
The second was last year. At this point in 2010, the Nationals were four games over .500 (20-16) but soon took an impossible-to-recover-from tumble.
In each of the four other years, the Nationals were at least six games under .500. Twice they were 12 games under and once, in the 73-89 2007 season, they were a remarkable 14 games under .500.
Will this year be different? According to Baseball Prospectus’ latest projections, the Nationals will win 73 games this season and despite being six games back of the NL East-leading Phillies right now, they have a 0.3 percent chance of making the playoffs. BP has even projected that the New York Mets, who are currently two games behind the Nationals in the NL East standings, will finish ahead of Washington.
But before you read too much into this, BP also has the AL Central’s second place Kansas City Royals finishing last in that division and with even less victories than the Nationals.
Perhaps more important than their overall record, the Nationals are now 15-13 in the absence of third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. The strategy since Zimmerman went down with an abdominal tear has been to attempt to keep the team afloat until his return stabilizes the Nationals lineup. It seemed like a daunting task.
Zimmerman is still at least a month away from a possible return but the Nationals are playing better than .500 baseball without him and they’ve done that with a team batting average that’s rarely shot above the .225 mark they’re at this morning.
There’s a reason these things aren’t played out via computer, though.
“We have to show these guys that we can play with them,” Desmond said. “I think we did that tonight.”