The Party's Over
September 2, 2005

The Washington National's inaugural season came to an end tonight.

They weren't bought and promptly contracted and/or disbanded by some Selig-directed stooge, although that might still happen depending on who gets awarded the franchise sometime in the next month or two.

No, the National's playoff hopes came to an end tonight.  Some have said that their playoff hopes were merely a mirage in the first place, while others still hold out hope that they might still make the postseason as they are not yet mathematically eliminated.  But for all intents and purposes, they are done.

It happened in the third inning against the visiting Phillies.  They had just evened the score at 1-1 off Vicente Padilla in the bottom half of the second.  With two out and Jason Michaels on first via a single, John Halama just needed one more out.  He pitched carefully to Pat Burrell but was unable to keep him from singling up the middle, sending Michaels to third.  Still, Halama was in control.  He just needed one out to move on to the bottom half and give his team a chance to take the lead.  Padilla had been wild in the first two innings, having walked two and hit one in addition two singles.  Surely if Halama could escape this predicament, the inconsistent Padilla could be gotten to just as the Diamondbacks had in his last start.

But instead of pitching aggressively to Chase Utley, an inexperienced left-handed hitter with 85 strikeouts on the season who's hitting .237 versus lefties, and a huge ballpark that turns plenty of home runs into outs, Halama started nibbling at the corners trying to make the perfect pitch.  Six pitches later, Utley walked to first.  Halama's first pitch to David Bell, the next batter, was a ball low.  He was still trying to make a perfect pitch and failing.  So pitching coach Randy St. Clair trotted to the mound to talk to his hurler, perhaps to point out that he only needed to get one more out.  "Throw strikes."  That's what they usually say.  But there's a rule of thumb with hitters when it comes to a coach paying a visit to the mound: the next pitch is almost never a breaking pitch.  In fact, far more often than not, the next one is a fastball.  So Bell just looked for a fastball.  On Halama's very next pitch, he got one.  And just like that - game, set and match - the season was over.  Bell's grand slam ended the longest current streak of at bats with the bases loaded without ever hitting a grand slam.  Before tonight, Bell had gone 126 at bats with the bases loaded having never hit a homer.  He was due and Halama helped him out. 

It also put the Nationals at a deficit that they haven't overcome very often at home.  They've made bigger comebacks this season - 8 runs against the Mets, and most recently 6 against the Braves - but those games were on the road where the National's hitters don't have a complex about hitting home runs.  It should be noted that the Nats also ultimately lost both of those games.  Maybe it started when legendary Washington Post columnist Tom Boswell conjectured that the fences were farther than the distances indicated back in July.  The Post had two reporters measure and sure enough, the fences were as much as 15 feet farther than the numbers said.   Maybe it was then that the hitters got it in their heads that they could no longer hit homers at home.  Who knows.  But ask any Washington hitter about the distance to the fences and to a man they blanch at the question.

Before tonight, Washington had some hope for a playoff run.  Eighteen of their final 27 games are at home where they have a .571 winning percentage.  Much of that schedule is against the teams in front of them in the standings and of the teams that aren't, none have a winning record.  But after tonight, the Nationals are four out of the wild card, 8 out in the division with four teams ahead of them in both races.  In short, they're done.

On the positive side of tonight's game, the National's got a look at their future and it doesn't look too bad.  Yes, the arrival of Deivi Cruz is always a good omen.  But seriously, Ryan Zimmerman made his debut just three months after being drafted.  He still has a few rough edges that will take some time to polish.  Boswell commented that Zimm reminded him of Cal Ripken.  Of course, it's always some former star that the new guy looks like.  It's never "wow, that guy's the next Rey Sanchez" or "the next Gary Scott".   There's certainly reason for optimism about Zimmerman.  He didn't look overwhelmed at the plate.  In fact, he smoked a double in his first major league plate appearance, making him the youngest player since Vlad Guerrero in franchise history to get a base hit.  And Brandon Watson looked pretty good as well, giving some hope that the team will have a speedster covering center field in the not-so-distant future. 

However, there are some warts on these two princes.  Zimmerman saw all of 4 pitches in his three at bats and his minor league numbers reveal a player who could probably use a little more patience at the plate.  Despite a sparkling .401 on base percentage in AAA, Watson has no power to speak of.  Still, if the National's can shore up their middle infield - perhaps take a chance on Junior Spivey? - and acquire a little more pitching depth, they could be a very dangerous team next year.

But that will be determined this offseason and next spring.  This year is over.