- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2007

One hundred years ago, the original Washington Nationals stunk up the American League with a 49-102 record and a .325 non-winning percentage. The last-place team, mismanaged by somebody named Pongo Joe Cantillon, finished 11 games behind seventh-place Boston and 43 behind champion Detroit.

How bad were those Gnats? Well, rookie right-hander Walter Johnson, a midseason acquisition, had merely a 5-9 record despite an ERA of 1.87. And by way of proving pitching misery loves company, Cy Falkenberg went 6-17 with a 2.35 ERA while Charlie Smith was 10-20 with a 2.61.

Now, just to show you that some things never seem to change, the reborn Nationals could be in for more of the same. The portents seem ominously clear. Given the expanded schedule, our Nats easily could lose more than 102 games. With a (bad) break or two, they might even challenge D.C.’s all-time horsehide nadir of 113 defeats in 1904.

When Major League Baseball finally shipped the Montreal Expos to us in 2005, the prevailing emotion hereabouts was joy that our 33-year baseball drought was over. And Frank Robinson’s Nats contributed mightily to it by going 50-31 and leading the National League East at the halfway point.

Then, to mix a metaphor or two, reality reared its ugly head with a resounding thud! Over the next season and a half, the club went 102-141, reminding us emphatically how ephemeral is euphoria.

Or looking at it another way, the Nats have finished dead last two years in a row with records of 81-81 and 71-91. And this season’s prospects call to mind an old vaudeville routine that might have made the rounds in ought-seven.

Straight man: “Say, how do you think the Washington ballclub will do this season?

Funny guy: “I think they’ll finish in ninth place.”

Straight man: “But there’s no ninth place.”

Funny guy: “OK then ? they’ll finish 10th.”

Har de har har.

But seriously, folks, if you give a rodent’s rump about the Nats, this will be a season to endure — possibly with your eyes squeezed shut.

When it comes to position players, Washington is nicely positioned, so to speak. Catcher Brian Schneider, first baseman Nick Johnson, second baseman Felipe Lopez, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman (who should have been NL Rookie of the Year in 2006 but somehow wasn’t), right fielder Austin Kearns, starter John Patterson and closer Chad Cordero should be around for a long time, the vagaries of free agency permitting. It’s easy to see them playing on a team that challenges for the division title and beyond in 2009, 2010 or 2011.

When it comes to the starting rotation, though, things get terribly messy. If you had asked Pongo Joe Cantillon in 1907 how important his chuckers were, he might have said something like, “Pitching is 75 percent of [winning] baseball.” (As a matter of fact, Connie Mack said exactly that many times, and who could doubt the Grand Old Man of Baseball?)

Patterson, who served up almost unhittable stuff for about three months in 2005, is good enough to be anybody’s ace, but he’s coming off elbow surgery that leaves him a question mark. The nominal No. 2 starter is Shawn Hill, who starts the season with a lifetime record of 2-5 and an ERA of 6.90 in the bigs. And after that … well, the Nats brought 38 pitchers to spring training, and most of them could see some action at RFK Stadium before fall.

There are other uncertainties. Can Nook Logan hit well enough to remain the regular center fielder? Will Johnson’s broken leg heal before midseason? Can left fielder Ryan Church finally trade potential for production? Will Cristian Guzman rediscover the batting stroke that so thoroughly deserted him in 2005?

Even if several of the questions are answered affirmatively, it’s gonna be such a l-o-o-n-g season that even first year skipper Manny Acta, an incurable optimist, might start throwing plates of food against the wall of his office by midsummer.

It’s better, much better, to look ahead to 2008, when the Nats will move into their new ballpark on the Anacostia Waterfront and hopefully attain respectability. From the Lerner family, president Stan Kasten and general manager Jim Bowden on down, the club is starting to build the right way — with plenty of emphasis on scouting, the farm system and a strong overall foundation. All indications are that the Nationals will emerge as one of the stronger teams in Major League Baseball, but such things usually take a lot of time.

And a lot of patience.

Let’s figure a record of 58-104 this time around, with much better days and nights to come.

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