As Charlie Slowes pointed out several times on the radio last night within the span of a few minutes, the Washington Nationals have the best record in the major leagues since May 18, upping the mark to 16-6 with last night's Yes! No! YES!!!, 9-8, twelve-inning victory over the Philadelphia Phillies. That's good.
Now, the factoid is certainly prone to the multiple endpoint fallacy. To wit: One could also say, prior to May 18, the Nats had lost two in a row, six out of seven, seven out of ten, and ten out of fourteen. But we all know the "since May 18" factoid is not cited for the proposition that the Nats are the best team in the major leagues---rather, that the Nats' turnaround has been so startling that this formerly dead-as-a-doornail squad has the majors' best record since May 18.
And that is quite the startling turnaround.
How much does it mean going forward? What I mean is, have the Nats merely caught up to where they should be from that horrific start and will now settle into playing the quality of ball that they should have for the balance of the season, not unlike their overall 29-33 record? Or will May 18 mark the date on which history proves everything turned around for the Washington Nationals, when the team reversed its course, made a rapid ascent back up the standings, forced management's hand to keep the "impact veterans" (including Alfonso Soriano) on the club, and stayed in things for the long haul? Or are they not unlike the 2004 Tampa Bay Devil Rays, a team to which (and to our annoyance) last year's Nats were compared: a bad team (70-91 overall) that had an inexplicably hot month (20-6 in June)?
My instinct is that this is our big hot streak and, while this team should not be mentioned in the same sentence as those Devil Rays (in fact, let's make that a policy, forever), nothing particularly memorable is on the horizon. But instincts often aren't enough---and don't forget that my instincts are tainted by being a heartless, preening blogger. So, something more is required of me, yet I'm not really up to the task of playing junior sabermetrician at the moment.
Instead, I'll do something sabermetricians---junior and senior---should never do and just lay the entire team's fortunes on the feet of one microcosmic member, and a rookie at that: Bill Bray.
(Hey, it's Saturday morning, the Snorks are over, and an entire day is ahead of us.)
Bray threw three innings of lockdown relief last night and has given up a single hit in 5.1 innings of work since his recall from New Orleans. When we say that this is a "different team" than the one we saw just over three weeks ago, Bray may be an emblem of that sentiment. He might be the result of what happens when a team loses faith in veteran relievers, like Felix Rodriguez and the combustible quote, Joey Eischen, who are placed in important spots because they are veterans but fail miserably because they are done. At a certain point, the only recourse is to dump the veterans---even through release or via the disabled list---despite the fact that they are veterans, and try for some new blood.
And Bray hopefully showed last night that his blood is quite vital indeed. As Harper notes, the top three "support relievers" (I just made up that term; you like?) are Majewski, Rauch, and Stanton---and those three are worked a lot. (By coincidence, all three got lit up last night, enabling the Phillies to scale a large deficit.) The team has benefitted from not having to withstand Rodriguez's and Eischen's frequent ineffectiveness or inevitable meltdowns, and while Eischen was more or less effective at the LOOGY aspects of his role, it's to the team's aid to replace him with a guy who can do more than satisfy the LOOGY aspects of the role. Bray is starting to look like that guy.
And, with a five-deep bullpen (plus a guy or two like Saul Rivera, never to see the light of day), in addition to what is hopefully a revitalized rotation (soon to add a healthy John Patterson), look out: the pitching could well keep this team in games for another month or two or three to come. Mix in Soriano, Vidro, Johnson, Zimmerman, and our jewel, Royce Clayton, and this team could make things quite interesting.
Or it could just be a hot streak.
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Juxtaposition, by the Washington Nationals' Miss Congeniality, Damian Jackson:
- On Nick Johnson: "You can't even touch that guy anywhere. You say, 'Hey, Nick, how are you doing? He goes, 'Ooh, ooh.'"
- On fan criticism (of himself): "[A fan who taunted him for making a boneheaded play] understands this lifestyle, doesn't he?" Jackson said of the fan. "He clearly doesn't. It's tougher than a lot of people think it is. . . . Every time it's thrown out there, it's baseball players with high salaries crying." . . .
Balls, Sticks & Stuff runs a fascinating comparison of Sunday's starter, Cole Hamels, and Barry Zito.