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November 5, 2011 [LINK / comment]

Washington Nationals: year in review

Now that the amazing, thrill-packed, unforgettable World Series of 2011 is over and done with, I can get back to various deferred tasks such as recapitulating the highlights of the Washington Nationals' 2011 season. With a win-loss record of 80-81 (.497) for the year, it was immensely satisfying and perhaps long overdue. There were a few "lowlights" along the way, but not nearly as many as in the past few years. The absence of Stephen Strasburg from the roster until late in the season lowered expectations, but a few other players really came through with consistently superb performances.

As has so often been the case, the Nats got off to a slow start in the first week, but in mid-April they swept the Milwaukee Brewers at home in Nationals Park, a good sign of better things to come. They were in third place for most of the first month, gradually sliding into fifth place by late May, and then rebounding strongly in June, climbing into third place with a win-loss record over .500. It was at this point that manager Jim Riggleman abruptly resigned, frustrated that his demands for negotiations for a long-term contract were being ignored by the Nationals front office. He was replaced by veteran (semi-retired) manager Davey Johnson, but the team sputtered for the next two months, falling to 11 games under .500 (65-76) by September 8. Then, things started to come together all of a sudden. The return of Stephen Strasburg and news reports about the slugging feats being performed by minor league hot prospect Bryce Harper gave a big boost to morale. From September 11th (!) until the final game on the 28th, the Nationals won 14 games and lost only 5. If it weren't for a walk-off home run by a Florida Marlins player on September 27, the Nats would have finished the season above .500 for the first time since relocating from Montreal to Washington in 2005.

In the batter's box, the loss of free agent sluggers Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham, who had played very well for two years in Washington, was a big gap to fill. It was expected that former Phillie Jayson Werth would more than make up for the offensive power, but it didn't exactly turn out that way. (He signed a seven-year $126-million contract with the Nationals in December 2010.) Indeed, Jayson had his worst year since becoming a regular major league player in 2004, with a batting average of .232 and 20 home runs. Another bit of bad luck was that Ryan Zimmerman was injured in mid-April, straining his abdominal muscles, and had to have surgery that cost him two full months. He finished the season with a .289 average but only 12 home runs. In contrast, the Nationals were extremely fortunate to have the services of Michael Morse, whom the Nationals obtained in a trade from the Seattle Mariners in 2008. He had been plagued by injuries early in his career, and no one knew what to expect of him. In 2010 he showed signs of becoming a slugger, and in 2011 he had a true breakout year, with 31 home runs (tied for 16th in the majors), 95 RBIs (tied for 24th in the majors), and a batting average of .303 (tied for 26th in the majors). If he makes next year's All Star Game, which is a very real possibility, you can bet he will make a "splash" in the Home Run Derby! (The game will be played at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, which features a nice waterfall.)

While pitchers Stephen Strasburg and Chien-Ming Wang (see below) slowly healed, Jason Marquis re-entered the Nationals rotation, and actually had a fairly decent year, with 8 wins, 5 losses and a 3.95 ERA. On the other hand, John Lannan had a rather mediocre year, going 10-13 even though he has been the team's number one pitcher for three of the past four years. The old reliable workhouse, Livan Hernandez, continued to eat up innings, but his record was only 8-13. This may be his last year in Washington. Former Cub Tom Gorzelanny did OK on the mound, but nothing spectacular, and by September was relegated to serving as a long reliever. Perhaps the best news for the Nats, pitching-wise, is they finally had a reliable closer, for the first time since Chad Cordero was injured in 2006. Drew Storen got 43 saves and was chosen for the All Star Game, where he faced exactly one batter, and gave up an RBI single, and yet ended up getting credit for the National League's win in that game. Go figure.

"April showers" caused several of their games to be delayed or postponed. There was an unusual number of extra-inning games in the first half of the season, four or five each month. During one three-day stretch -- May 11-13 -- the Nats played in three extra-inning games, losing the last two. For the year as a whole, the Nats won 12 extra-inning games and lost just 8, another good sign. Attendance started to pick up in September, and the total for the year (1.9 million) was a modest improvement over the past two years. Best of all, the Nats won 14 of their last 18 games of the season.

As a fruit of my research effort, I just finished a major overhaul of the Washington Nationals [broken link fixed] page, which summarizes the team's performance since being "reborn" in Washington seven years ago. (Has it really been that long?) That page now displays the "usual starting positions" for each year in a graphical tabular format, such that the center fielder is listed at the top, the catcher at the bottom, etc. There is even a brown "warning track" around each of those annual tables. It is now much easier than before to compare how the team's roster and performance changed from year to year. In the process I learned (or remembered?) a lot, such as that Royce Clayton was the Nats' shortstop for most of the 2006 season. To be honest, I had completely forgotten that name. The first-string rosters for each year are summarized in an annual table toward the bottom of that page, along with annual data on wins, losses, streaks, attendance, etc. For the sake of brevity, I removed the photos from that page, and removed most of the text as well. The Nationals' 9th (+) inning comebacks and/or blown leads are tabulated at the very bottom, along with grand slams (five for the year, making 23 altogether).

This table of data for each month is also shown on that page:

Nationals, 2011: month-by-month summary
Month Wins Losses NL East place
(at end)
Number of
home games
April 2011 12 14 T 3rd 14 272,151 19,439
May 2011 11 17 5th 11 238,427 21,675
June 2011 17 10 4th 10 269,671 26,967
July 2011 11 15 5th 17 410,610 24,154
Aug. 2011 12 15 4th 13 324,285 24,945
Sept.* 2011 17 10 3rd 15 425,336 28,356
2011 80 81 3rd 80 1,940,480 24,256

SOURCE: My unofficial daily tabulations from MLB Gameday stats, Washington Post, and other newspapers.

Also, I have updated the last two years' sections on the Washington Nationals page with a detailed (though abbreviated) listing of the "memorable moments." If you're not well-versed in baseball shorthand and jargon, you will probably be bewildered. Here is a quick rundown of the ones for this year:

Nats sign Wang, lose Bixler

On Friday the Nationals signed right-hand pitcher Chien-Ming Wang to a one-year contract that is worth $4 million. The Nationals wanted an option for a second year, but Wang wanted to retain negotiating leverage in case he improves so much that he could get a better deal one year from now. See It's a sign of good faith and mutual trust on the part of both sides; Wang missed almost three years because of a bad arm that seems to be fully healed now. He had two great years with the New York Yankees, going 19-6 in 2006 and 19-7 in 2007. If does anywhere close to that well next year, it would make a big difference in the Nationals' win-loss record.

Another free agent, Brian Bixler, just signed a contract with the Houston Astros. He did pretty well as a utility bench player early in the season, and played a key role in the amazing 14-inning marathon in Chicago on June 24 mentioned above (see blog post), but ended the season with only 17 hits in 83 at bats.

Coming attractions (rev.)

For a variety of reasons, I have altered the list of "Coming Attractions" shown in the right column of the Baseball blog page. You will soon be seeing major revisions to diagrams of stadiums from the San Francisco Bay area, and from Flushing, Long Island...

Coming Attractions

Goodbye Comic Sans MS

After realizing that many platforms (such as our family iPad) no longer support it, I am finally giving up on the archaic font known as Comic Sans MS, which has been a signature stylistic element of my baseball pages since the very beginning of this Web site, nearly ten years ago. (!!??) For the record, here is what the above mini-headline is supposed to look like:

Goodbye Comic Sans MS

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 09 Nov 2011, 4: 37 PM

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