From 1956 through 1971, I rooted for baseball’s Washington Senators with near-religious zeal. During that 16-year period, the team had one winning season (actually we’re talking about two teams — the one that became the Minnesota Twins and the one that became the Texas Rangers). The year was 1969, Ted Williams was the manager, and it felt like we had won the pennant.
When the Montreal Expos moved to Washington this spring, they looked like worthy successors to the Senators, having finished the 2004 season with a record of 67-95. Even recognizing that baseball is more fluid than it was 40 years ago, break-even ball seemed no more likely than it had in my youth.
Forget break-even baseball. With yesterday’s win over the Chicago Cubs, the Washington Nationals are now 48-31. Only two teams in baseball have a better record. The Nats are four and a half games up on the Atlanta Braves, who have won their division every year since the Senators left town (well, every year since 1991 if I’m not mistaken). And 21 of the 48 wins have been by one run.
That last statistic actually gives cause for concern. I think it was Bill James who first noted that if a team is winning lots of close games, this probably has more to do with luck than with character. But the Nats undeniably have character. They have accomplished their romp through baseball with an ungodly number of injuries. Their best player, Vidro, has missed most of the season. Their two best hitters on the year, Church and Johnson, are injured now. Their other top hitters, Guillen and Wilkerson, have played hurt for much of the year. Their best pitchers, Hernandez, Loiza, Cordero, and Ayala, have been healthy all year, but the rest of the staff has been a complete patchwork due to injuries.
I don’t follow baseball closely enough to know what to expect the rest of the way. If the club can’t get and stay healthy, it may well fade out of contention. But that 1969 high-water mark of 86-76 appears to be in jeopardy.
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