On this date, one year ago . . . The Nats defeated the Marlins, 6-3. It was their fourth straight win, seventh in eighth games, and it was good enough to vault the Nats into first place. They would remain there until July 26, when a 3-2, ten-inning loss in Atlanta knocked the Nats a game back.
One year later, the Nats have again turned it on when the calendar hit June; with yesterday's 8-4 series sweeper against Milwaukee, Washington's
only finest have taken four in a row and seven out of ten. The Nats now stand seven games below .500, the first time the team has been that close to break-even in quite awhile---late April, probably.
- Of course, parallelism will only take you so far, and the great advantage the '05 Nats had was starting their hot streak while they were in the neighborhood of .500, rather than thirteen games below. This time around, even six more wins---to match last June's ten-game winning streak---would still leave the team a game below .500. So perhaps we should not get carried away by a sweep over a free-falling Milwaukee club.
Nevertheless, what is it that interests us (or, to be less presumptuous about it, me) about this year's edition of the Nats? Well, it's certainly not a playoff run or a winning season; the former is all but impossible, and the latter is all but unrealistic. Therefore, we're looking at a game-by-game endeavor, and the rest of the June schedule looks fascinating.
First, there's a three-game set in Atlanta, starting tonight. (For more on the Braves, check out Talking Chop.) The Braves, we must understand, are coming off a rather humiliating series against the Diamondbacks---they were swept in their own park, four straight, the first time ever in the eight-year history of Turner Field (albeit at the hands of a team that is currently on fire). Will the Braves be primed for an angry turnaround, or are they in the midst of their own nose-dive? It's been nearly five years since Atlanta suffered a five-game losing streak. This might be the weakest edition of the Braves in merely a generation, or they might just be pacing themselves for an inevitable July kick. At any rate, the Nats receive a tough draw in this series: Tim Hudson, then Horacio Ramirez (coming off a strong start against Arizona), and then John Smoltz.
A series win in Atlanta would be nice, of course---especially so, since the Nats then return to RFK for an eleven-game homestand. No pushovers will pass through DC from June 8-18, but I'd surmise the Nats got a lucky draw by getting both the Phillies and Rockies for four games apiece, and the Yankees only for three. However, the presence of the Yankees on the homestand's schedule probably tempers some of the prospective optimism. Since I'll project a series win in Atlanta, I'll hedge a bit on the other side and won't be any more optimistic than a 6-5 homestand.
Accounting for those two predictions, the Nats would then be 33-38 after seventy-one games---not bad at all, since zero wins in their next ten games would produce a mid-way projection of sixty-six wins, precisely where they were at the recent one-third mark.
It would be nice if the next fourteen games could provide that kind of surge (or even a little better?), because the Nats will embark on a nine-game road trip after the long homestand: three in Boston, three in another "Battle of the Beltways," and three in Toronto. Boston and Toronto both have strong teams. As for the O's, they seem to be treading water somewhat, having settled into a not-really-threatening-.500-but-also-not-horrible posture. They took two of three a couple weeks ago in Washington, but that seems like a lifetime ago now.
I'll just WAG that the Nats finish that road trip 4-5 (these are really boring predictions, aren't they?), take the first game in the Tampa series on June 30, and end June (and the season's first half) at 38-43, a 76-win pace.
Can it be done? Of course. That's essentially .500 ball (a little bit over) in the remainder of the month dominated by a long homestand. No matter what, the Nats will probably come fairly close to that, within three or four games; in other words, it seems unlikely we will reach the season's mid-way point looking at a team projected to win fifty-eight games.
Don't misunderstand: I'm not anticipating anything better than a poor team on the whole---but that's a lot better than what we were looking at three weeks ago, which was a moribund team. By comparison, this one is, well, watchable. (Forget that it's hard to watch this team, even when you're supposed to be able to watch them.)
Alfonso Soriano continues his amazing play, cranking out two more homers in the series finale in Milwaukee. A couple weeks ago, I noted Soriano's aberrant-looking homers-to-doubles rate (16-to-5 at the time) as something of which to be mindful in the coming weeks. So, in the interim, he's not only doubled-his-doubles (now up to ten on the season), but kept his home run rate constant.
There is only one explanation for this success. As I wrote nearly two months ago, "to suggest [Soriano] is made of earthly matter is to insult him. He's superhuman." (Forget that I meant intended this description as a parody at the time.)
Today (as Chris has been for a little while), Capitol Punishment observes that Soriano appears to be trying to hit home runs. (If so, keep up the good work, Alfonso!) The corollary to this observation is that Soriano is in the midst of an old fashioned salary drive. In a related matter, Harper notes the change of heart concerning Soriano in the Nats fanbase---and, going somewhat against the grain currently, wonders if it would be wise to lock up Soriano long-term. Harper points out that, while Soriano is playing at an unseen level for him thus far, Soriano is also playing at an unseen level for him thus far---and therein could lie a problem for the Nats down the road: paying for Soriano's '06 production. Plus, there's the issue of where Soriano would play, and how he would play it. (And, obviously, this all presupposes Soriano would be inclined to re-sign with the Nats, not a safe assumption in itself.)
The long and short of it, as I see it, is just as it is with the Nats themselves this season: hope to enjoy today, and let tomorrow bring what it brings. Hopefully, in Soriano's case, it's an incredible trade offer. Amazingly---from my perspective months ago---that's a hard thing for me to say; however, the prudent course is usually to cash in while value is high.
And Soriano's highest value on the trade market is becoming more imminent by the day.
- There is also the issue of the MLB draft, which occurs this week. Look for previews of what the Nats figure to do at the usual places, including Nats Farm Authority, which will be running a preview in the next day or so. The Washington Times also ran a preview (of sorts) in today's edition, which included this curious line:
What kind of players do the Nationals want to try to develop? Big, hard-throwing right-handers? Speedy outfielders? Five-tool shortstops?
Hmmmm. If the Nats happen to run across a "five-tool shortstop," I recommend they take him. There aren't many of those---throughout the history of baseball.
Also of note: John Sickels' Minor League Ball has conducted an extensive mock draft.