- The Washington Times - Friday, September 30, 2005

Barring a sweep this weekend by the Philadelphia Phillies, the Washington Nationals will finish over the .500 mark in their inaugural season. They can do no worse than .500. The phenomenal pre-All Star-break Nats these are not, but at 81-78, these third-place Nationals are a dreamy delight compared to last year’s cellar-dwelling, 95-game-losing Montreal Expos, who played a large chunk of their “home” games in Puerto Rico. They are the second-most-improved team in baseball and have fulfilled the wishes of tens of thousands of area fans. The old saying now bears revision: Washington is first in war, first in peace, and near the happy middle of the National League.

They played better than a middling ranking suggests: Unless the Atlanta Braves sweep the Florida Marlins this weekend, the Nats’ National League Eastern Division will become just the second division in the history of baseball in which every team finishes with a record at or above .500 (In the only other case, 14 years ago, the luckless California Angels finished last in the A.L. West with a respectable 81 wins and 81 losses.). The upside: Seeing Pedro Martinez’s Mets, Andruw Jones’s Braves and Dontrelle Willis’s Marlins come through town every few weeks.

The Nats enter the weekend out of contention, tied for third with the Mets and one game above Florida. But only geography explains that. Had the Nats been an N.L. West team, they would be in first place: The 80-79 San Diego Padres clinched a playoff birth this week because they happen to sit atop baseball’s weakest division. All five N.L. East teams have better records going into the weekend than the Padres. A schedule of heavy play against weak clubs like the Colorado Rockies and Los Angeles Dodgers — a schedule the Padres enjoyed all year — would have catapulted the Nats still higher.

A light-hitting team in an age of big offense, the Nats were a throwback, relying on strong pitching and a spacious RFK Stadium where home runs were scarce. Going into the weekend, the Nats were last in the National League in runs scored (629); last in batting average (.252); last in home runs (115); last in hits (1,344); and tied for second-last in on-base percentage (.322). The bigs bats were few: Jose Guillen (.282, 24 HR, 76 RBI) and Nick Johnson (.293, 15 HR, 73 RBI) anchored the lineup for most of the season, while Vinny Castilla, Brad Wilkerson, Cristian Guzman and the injured Jose Vidro produced noticeably less than expected.

But the pitching was outstanding: The Nats notched the fourth-best team earned-run average in the National League (3.81) in a rotation built around the inning-devouring Livan Hernandez (15-9, 3.95 ERA, 239.1 IP) and Esteban Loaiza (12-10, 3.77 ERA, 217 IP), while the 27-year-old John Patterson emerged as a marquee Major League starter (9-6. 2.90 ERA, 192.2 IP) despite injuries. Meanwhile, in the bullpen, closer Chad Cordero set a club record with 47 saves and notched a barely hittable 1.82 ERA. As the team’s legendary throwback manager Frank Robinson put it this week: “I think some very exciting things could happen with this club over the winter with the right moves, three or four.”

Among the other notable Nats highlights of the year: The team survived bids by Baltimore Orioles General Manager Peter Angelos to strangle it in its crib with unfair TV deals and doomsaying about Orioles revenues; home viewers suffered game blackouts at the behest of Mr. Angelos and Comcast; radio listeners struggled with weak signals from WFED 1050 AM; career minor-leaguer Rick Short flirted with .400 for the Nats’ Triple A affiliate, the New Orleans Zephyrs; last week the Zephyrs announced that they survived Hurricane Katrina and would play ball again in 2006 at Zephyr Field, currently a base for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Meanwhile off-the-field uncertainty looms: The boondoggle stadium deal threatens serious financial problems for the District; the Nationals’ new owner is still unknown, although this week MLB was reportedly testing the waters for Jeffrey H. Smulyan’s bid to buy the Nats. Mr. Smulyan, the unpopular former owner of the Seattle Mariners, is reportedly scrambling for local partners after several D.C. politicians warned MLB that it cannot sell the Nats to just another baseball-insider old-boys’ club; Washingtonians must be part of the ownership mix, too.

We’ll address those problems moving forward. For now, it’s time to savor a season well played and a banner year for baseball’s return to Washington.

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