- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 29, 2007

Last weekend may have been Yom Kippur, but today is my personal day of atonement. Today is when I try to atone for everything I wrote about the Washington Nationals‘ 2007 season that turned out to be wrong.

It may turn into a seven-part series.

My preseason prediction for the Washington Nationals was 54-108. I had gone through the entire schedule and tried to imagine what the pitching matchups would be — which at the time meant a major league starter vs. the Nationals Blue Light special on the mound — and how the Washington offense would fare stacked against the opposing lineups.

Actually, it was initially 55-108, until my colleague, Mark Zuckerman, pointed out that would mean a 163-game season. So I didn’t even give them the benefit of the doubt and take off a loss. Instead, I removed a win.

They have obliterated that prediction, so much so that the Nationals could wind up 20 games better than I thought.

So I might as well get the first, and most painful, atonement, out of the way — general manager Jim Bowden. Why is it the most painful? Because it’s Bowden, of course.

First, he brought in two players no team wanted — Ronnie Belliard and Dmitri Young — at bargain prices. You could argue both of them have turned out to be among the most valuable players on the roster — Belliard because of his ability to step in when Cristian Guzman went down and Young for filling in at first base and contending for the National League batting title.

Then he and his staff managed to invite the best scraps from the heap to piece together a pitching staff that performed well enough to keep a weak-hitting team competitive all season.

I may be atoning, but it wasn’t unreasonable to think the pitching staff would be a disaster.

After all, Bowden himself admitted in spring training that he had never seen such uncertainty about a starting rotation — four spots open.

“I’ve never seen it or heard of it,” Bowden said. “I’ve been in the game since 1984, and I can’t tell you before that. But I’ve never seen it.”

And then the one starter they were counting on — John Patterson — made just seven starts this year. Let’s face it, they got lucky, but as Branch Rickey once said, “Luck is the residue of design.”

That’s as close as I can get to atoning to Jim Bowden.

And a lot of people probably need to fess up for doubting Dmitri Young. When I saw him in spring training — in minor league camp, no less — I wouldn’t have given him much of a shot to finish spring training, let along make the major league roster. And when he did make the roster, I figured he would last three weeks before he would be on the disabled list with a pulled hamstring.

So not only did he make it through the first month, Young wound up being among the best hitters in the National League, batting .323 in 452 at bats going into last night’s game. He was banished from the Detroit Tigers last fall, even when they were getting ready for the playoffs, became one of the leaders of the Nationals clubhouse. I am glad I was wrong about him.

Of course, team president Stan Kasten receives a mea culpa as well. Turns out shopping at “Stan’s Club” resulted in some pretty good deals — though there is no reason to make a habit of it when you have money burning a hole in your pockets, as the team should as it moves into a new ballpark for 2008. Remember, you’re moving on up to the east side now.

Along those lines, I particularly need to atone to owner Ted Lerner. I remember talking to him at the Nationals Foundation dinner two days before the season was about to start, and him saying to me, “You know, I think our pitching is going to be a lot better than people realize.”

Normally at that point I would have used the word “delusional” in my response, but this is a man you don’t say something like that to. So I said, “Mr. Lerner, I don’t know about that.”

Wrong again.

The new manager, Manny Acta, certainly is deserving of my atonement — not that I didn’t think he would be a good manager, but I didn’t think Casey Stengel could have gotten this team this far. I’m not sure he could have.

Maybe I should have paid attention to a spring training omen about how wrong I would be about this team. It was early in Viera, just pitchers and catchers, and all you are doing is watching pitchers throw to catchers. You try to come up with some judgement based on how hard a guy is throwing, or movement on the ball. There was this tall, young left-hander who looked impressive to me. He was going to be my find of spring training. Standing next to Bowden, watching him pitch one day, I mentioned to the general manager how good the kid looked.

Turns out I picked the guy in camp that Bowden liked the least, to put it mildly, and then he explained to me everything the kid was doing wrong in his delivery. Needless to say, he wasn’t in Viera long.

I should have taken that as a sign.

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