October 3, 2006
Finishing in last place once again forces us to do some Sober Reflecting, while squinting to find some kind of "silver lining" around those dark clouds of agonizing defeat. The electrifying April 2005 debut series in Washington whereby the Nationals swept the Diamondbacks got the newly relocated team off to a fine start. In contrast, in this year's opening series at RFK Stadium the Nationals were swept by the Mets! Home field advantage counted for hardly anything early in the season, as the Nats lost nine of their first ten home games. For most of the first six weeks there were hovering around .333, usually in fourth place in the NL East. They turned things around with a win against the Orioles at home on May 20, beginning a three-week hot stretch that brought them to within four games of .500 -- the closest they ever came this year. Then the Colorado Rockies swept them at RFK Stadium in mid-June, the start of another cold streak lasting through mid-July. Consecutive sweeps at home against the Cubs and Giants later that month were probably the high point of the year, but they could never hold the momentum. They managed a winning record in September, salvaging some dignity, but the loss of the final three games to the Mets -- like the sweep in April -- provided a fitting end to a very disappointing season. So, what were the Most Memorable Moments of the year? I would say:
Some of those moments we wish we could forget. The following summary table can be compared to the table I compiled last year.
|NL East place
|Sept. - Oct.
SOURCE: My unofficial daily tabulations from MLB Gameday stats and Washington Post.
One of the striking differences between the Nationals' first year and their second is in the pitching-versus-batting tradeoff. Injuries to Pedro Astacio (before the season even started) and John Patterson in midseason exposed a crippling vulnerability in the bullpen. Jon Rauch performed well, but the rest of the "motley crew" was seldom up to the task, so that Chad Cordero had far fewer save opportunities than in 2005. The sharply reduced win-loss record (from 81-81 to 71-91) was matched by a corresponding drop in average attendance, from 33,584 to 26,574 per game.
As the above figures suggest, the mediocre performance by the Nationals this year puts at risk their fan support from the Washington area. As the Washington Post notes, this raises the pressure on the stadium builders to finish the construction pronto. I just hope the Lerners are wise enough to realize that baseball is not a circus, and that all the fancy accommodations in the world will not make up for a losing team on the field.
Visiting teams won both games this afternoon, reminding us that playing at one's home field has not been particularly advantageous in postseason games of the past few years. (Hence the World Series wins by wild card teams in 2002-2004.) The Twins' loss in the noisy Metrodome was surprising, especially with Johan Santana pitching. In the Bronx, Derek Jeter practically won the game all by himself, hitting two singles, two doubles, and a home run. He also started a crucial double play that stifled what could have been a rally by the Tigers.