- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The worst team in the major leagues has suddenly become baseball’s hottest ballclub.

The Washington Nationals - yes, the Nationals - have reversed course over the past two weeks and enter Tuesday night’s game in Atlanta riding an eight-game winning streak that is baseball’s longest current run of success.

Just like that, a team that was drawing comparisons to some of the most futile clubs ever assembled has righted its ship, making fewer errors, getting better pitching and recording more clutch hits since Jim Riggleman took over as interim manager during the All-Star break.

The Nationals may still own the majors’ worst overall record at 40-72, but few players think they are playing for a loser.

“There’s no quit in this team,” pitcher Collin Balester said. “No matter how much down we are or up, we just keep fighting. This is the best team with the worst record I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Few on the outside saw this resurgence coming, not from a team that slogged its way through the season’s first half with a struggling bullpen and a propensity to botch plays in the field at the most inopportune moments. Coming out of the All-Star break, the Nationals had a 26-62 record, seven games worse than the nearest club.

But the Nationals have felt all along they were underachievers, that they were capable of playing a more-respectable brand of baseball than they had exhibited for more than three months.

Sure enough, they’ve turned it around over the last two-plus weeks, playing fundamentally sound ball en route to 12 victories in their last 16 games. That bullpen that seemed to be imploding on a nightly basis back in April and May? After being overhauled by acting general manager Mike Rizzo, it’s gone 8-1 with a 3.08 ERA and eight saves since the All-Star break. That sievelike defense that committed a league-high 94 errors through its first 96 games? It’s committed only five gaffes during this latest 16-game stretch.

And a lineup that already was adequately productive has stepped it up a notch, averaging more than seven runs per game since July 25.

“Very good defense. Much more effective bullpen pitching. And timely hitting,” Riggleman said when asked what he thinks has led to the turnaround. “I still think we haven’t reached our potential in our starting rotation. But those other areas have really picked up and allowed us to win ballgames.”

Riggleman, who was promoted to interim manager after Manny Acta was fired July 12, is receiving plenty of credit himself and perhaps is drawing more consideration for the job on a permanent basis. Players have complimented the 56-year-old former bench coach for his communication skills and emphasis on accountability since taking over for the popular Acta, but they’re quick not to put too much emphasis on the managerial switch.

“Yeah, he’s said some great things. He’s done a lot of great things,” first baseman Adam Dunn said. “But if I say it’s the change in managers, that’s a pretty low blow to Manny. I thought Manny did a great job from Day One. I just think it’s two totally different philosophies. I think Riggs has just helped us relax a little bit, and that’s a credit to him.”

This resurgence comes at an important point in the season for the Nationals, who are attempting to convince No. 1 draft pick Stephen Strasburg to sign with them before Monday’s 11:59 p.m. deadline. The flame-throwing right-hander from San Diego State has been touted as the best pitching prospect in a generation, and his agent, Scott Boras, is seeking a contract that dwarfs the largest deal ever given to a draft pick: $10.5 million by the Chicago Cubs to pitcher Mark Prior in 2001.

Negotiations are expected to go right down to the wire, but perhaps Strasburg will be encouraged by the Nationals’ recent success and be more willing to sign.

Strasburg and Mr. Boras may have picked up some more leverage on Monday, as the Nationals got their first bit of bad news in nearly a month. The team learned rookie right-hander Jordan Zimmermann, the Nationals’ top pitching prospect and one of the most positive developments of the season, will need Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow. He’ll miss the rest of this season and most if not all of the 2010 campaign.

If Strasburg does come to terms on a contract, he could end up pitching at Nationals Park come September. He won’t be part of a pennant race, but he could be part of an improving ballclub that for the first time all season believes it’s capable of winning.

“Our attitude has changed, and it’s a good sign,” left-hander John Lannan said. “We’re finishing this year strong, and we’re not giving up, which is a great sign for the rest of this year and going into next year.”

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