How 'Bout Dem Nats!
June 12, 2005

The Washington Nationals drew 104,985 fans for this weekend's three game series against the Mariners.  The team averaged nearly 35,000 per game against a team that lost 99 games last year and is playing in a stadium that is nearly 40 years old.  It would be one thing if the Cubs or Cardinals or Yankees or Red Sox were in town - teams with storied histories and legions of fans everywhere.  But this was for the Mariners, a team with very little history and hasn't been competitive in several years.  Is there anyone out there that still doesn't believe that DC is a baseball town?

Tony Armas' linescore from Sunday's game looks rather unimpressive.  Five innings pitched, 5 hits, 3 walks and 6 strikeouts... 107 pitches!.  One positive sign is that he threw 70 strikes.  Still, in looking at the pitch count one could conclude that he was extremely inefficient with his pitches.  The problem with that is that two hitters - Jeremy Reed and Raul Ibanez - were the actual culprits.  By the time the 3th inning finished, Armas had thrown 74 pitches; Reed and Ibanez had seen 38 of them.  No other batter had seen more than 9 pitches, but Reed's total was 21 and Ibanez had seen 17.  Between them they had fouled off 18 pitches in those four plate appearances.  They ended up seeing a total of 45 of Armas' 107 pitches in the game but in six combined plate appearances their total production was two walks with zero runners advanced.  Yes, Armas was inefficient using 62 pitches to get 11 non-Reed/non-Ibanez outs, a pace that would normally yield between six and seven innings.  But he wasn't as bad as the overall numbers seem to indicate.  His velocity was good and the movement on his pitches was very good.  In Richie Sexson's fist two plate appearances, Armas threw 8 pitches, but only 2 were in the strikezone.  Still, he struck Sexson out both times on four pitches.  Once he refines his location a little more, his numbers - wins, ERA, WHIP and Ks - should take off.

A lot of people are saying the Nats are a fluke team.  Well, they are and they aren't.  Brad Wilkerson, Vinny Castilla, Jose Guillen and Cristian Guzman aren't really performing any better than anyone thought they would.  In fact, Wilkserson and Guzman are performing worse.  So the Nats could actually be a little better than they appear. 

It shouldn't be much of a surprise how good Nick Johnson and John Patterson have been.  As a 20 year old in AA in 1999, Nick Johnson's numbers translated to a .942 OPS hitter.  In 2003 with the Yankees he posted an .894 OPS.  It hasn't been so much a question whether he has the talent to hit; it's been a question of staying healthy enough to do so.  Patterson was one of the best high school pitching prospects in recent memory when he was drafted, and has been compared to star prospects Josh Beckett and Kerry Wood.  Like Johnson though, injuries slowed his career. After his first two professional seasons in which he posted an ERA of 2.98 and WHIP of 1.175 in two hitter's leagues while striking out nearly 11 batters per 9 innings, he endured five years of injuries and reconstructive surgeries.  Finally healthy at the start of last season, he began with a 3.57 ERA and 1.014 WHIP in four April starts before a groin strain abridged his season.  He was rusty and a bit apprehansive upon his return, but his strikeout rate showed there was still considerable promise.  These guys have always had talent; it's just that this year they are finally healthy enough to show it.

Two other players who are doing "surprisingly" well are Ryan Church and Marlon Byrd.  But are they really hitting better than they are capable?  Last year Ryan Church hit the equivalent of .307 (.911 OPS) between two stops in the minors before getting a late albeit brief look in Montreal.  Byrd is just two years removed from finishing 4th in the Rookie of the Year voting and four years removed from a solid AA year in which he hit .316 with 28 homers (and a major league equivalent .796 OPS).  Neither guy is outperforming those numbers currently.  But they are just doing it for the first time in the majors. 

At the end of the bullpen, Luis Ayala and Chad Cordero were really good, but people just didn't know just how good.  Before this season began, Ayala had allowed the first batter he faced to reach base only 5 times in his career, a span of 146 games.  Cordero had never allowed an inherited runner to score.  Twenty times previous he had come in with runners on base and not one scored.  So even beyond their sterling ERAs and strikeout rates, these two were special relievers who very rarely lost leads. 

No, what has been so amazing about the Nats run in first place is that they are doing it without Jose Vidro, and with Guzman not hitting and Brad Wilkerson not hitting home runs.  They've been doing it with a dozen guys on the DL and a revolving door in the rotation after Livan Hernandez, Esteban Loaiza and John Patterson.  Maybe Armas is answer the question in the 4th spot.  Maybe newly acquired Ryan Drese will or perhaps he'll find a home in the 5th spot.  They had the talent to be decent last year in Montreal, but a grueling travel schedule and a number of other factors weighed heavily against them.  Now they are just showing that they are not only decent but competitve.  With a couple more quality players, they might become really good.