- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 12, 2005

As a founding member of an upstart baseball organization formed in 1901 to challenge the 25-year-old National League, the Washington ballclub compiled such a futile record during its first decade that it richly deserved the vaudeville epithet coined at its expense: “Washington — First in War, First in Peace and Last in the American League.” Well, today, as the season’s official All-Star break comes to a close, a revision is in order: “Washington: First in War, First in Peace and First in the East Division of the National League.”

What a difference a year and a franchise relocation can make. At the All-Star break last year, the Montreal Expos had the fewest victories in the NL and were mired in last place in the East, 15 games behind. Today, with a 52-36 record (second-best in the National League), the Washington Nationals occupy first place in the East, arguably the toughest division in baseball. At last year’s All-Star break, the Expos were 18-27 at home. Today the Nats own the best home record (30-13) in Major League Baseball.

The first-place Nats (team payroll: $48.6 million, 23rd out of 30 major-league teams) lead Atlanta ($86.5 million) by 2.5 games. For the benefit of skeptics interested in wild-card calculations, the Nats lead Florida ($60.4 million) by 7 games, Philadelphia ($95.5 million) by 7.5 games and the New York Mets ($101.3 million) by 8 games. Houston ($76.8 million) and the Chicago Cubs ($87 million) in the Central Division trail the Nats in the wild-card race by 7.5 and 8.5 games, respectively.

Indicative of the peerless performance of Manager Frank Robinson, the Nats have clawed their way into first place despite scoring the fewest runs in the league, hitting the fewest home runs, having the lowest team slugging percentage and stealing the fewest bases. The team wins the close games and never gives up. The Nats have compiled a 24-10 record in one-run games (14-4 at home). From May 14 (when the Nats were 18-17 and in fourth place, 3 games back) through July 3 (when the first-place Nats’ record peaked at 50-31, 5.5 games ahead of Atlanta), the team compiled a phenomenal 18-2 record in one-run games. Through the All-Star break, moreover, 29 of the team’s 52 victories were come-from-behind. In games in which the Nats have scored more than four runs, their record is 30-2. The Nats are 19-0 in games where they scored more than five runs. Robinson has somehow managed these feats despite a rash of injuries afflicting his players, including first-baseman Nick Johnson, second-baseman Jose Vidro, shortstop Cristian Guzman and outfielders Ryan Church and Termel Sledge.

Without missing a single start despite a knee injury that requires constant ice treatment, staff ace Livan Hernandez has won 12 games, third-highest in the league. Chad Cordero leads the major leagues with 31 saves, six more than his nearest rival.

Offensively, first-baseman Johnson has the league’s second-highest on-base percentage (.444) and fifth-highest batting average (.320). Outfielder Jose Guillen, who has hit a blistering .375 over the past month, is batting .310, ninth-highest in the league.

Not surprisingly, the Nats’ incredibly exciting play has sold lots of tickets — 1,427,963, to be exact, for the 43 home games so far. That’s virtually double the Expos’ home attendance for all of last season.

Based on the Nats’ performance to date, is there any doubt who the leading contender for Manager of the Year is?

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