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(Glorious) Revolution

There is one and only one rule to being a baseball fan, and it's absolutely intractable: always remember it's a long season. Everything else -- National League/American League; Yankees/Red Sox; old school/Moneyball -- everything else is negotiable. But you must remember it's a long season.

It's six months by way of six weeks by way of six days by way of sixty seconds. The season can plod along at a dismal pace and then change on a dime, or at least seem to for a moment. You can bemoan the bats one week and praise them the next. And then, of course, go back to bemoaning them the next week. Hey, that pitching -- has it turned the corner? Too soon to tell; better give it another week. Better yet, a full month. Can it hold up night after night? We'll just have to wait and see. It's a baseball season, and it's six months. Follow it, nurse it, wait it out -- with patience and appreciation.

Viewing the season's first six weeks from above the trees, if you will, the Nats lost eight out of nine, then played pretty decent ball, then lost eight in a row, then swept out the Marlins. At every turn, it seems like the team is moving in a specific direction. The team starts out terribly, and you're thinking things are going to descend very far, very quickly. They right the ship, and you're thinking things just might not be so bad. They slip on a three-city banana peel, and you're thinking the offense could not be any more inept. And, in a way, you're right, because they splurge for a weekend (including late into the night in dramatic fashion), and you're thinking bring on the Braves.

So, viewing the season on a daily basis from below the tree-line, you don't know quite which direction the Nats will take. Is this sweep of the Marlins just the on-ramp to sustained success? Is it a pit stop where temporary relief is attained? The beauty of baseball is that, however much we think we know this team by now, neither you nor I -- nor the management, nor the announcers, nor the players themselves -- really know. We can't know. This isn't football; you are not as good as your last game. That's not how it works. How it works is that you watch the games, you listen to the broadcasters, you read the paper, you view the stats, you watch the trends, and you view this whole thing with patience and perspective. Baseball is a game to be savored, not reduced to a betting line or thrashed out on talk radio. Sometimes, occasionally, there is no tomorrow. But, the other times, most times, there is -- and then another tomorrow, and another, and another, until the tomorrows blend into each other, the weeks turn to months, and you appreciate just what it was you were thinking on the evening of May 13, when the Nats had won three straight.

Following this team requires constant recognition that it's a long season. Things will not be quite as good as they seem following a win -- or, even better, three in a row -- but they also won't be quite as bad as they seem following the toughest stretches. In a 162-game season, there are plenty of opportunities to wallow in some misery, but there also opportunities to experience some joy and even some woofing, no matter how bad the team you follow is. So, three in a row; take that, Marlins!

We don't know what direction a team will move, but a hundred-something years of cumulative experience watching baseball gives us an idea, as does a generation or more of applying baseball's beloved numbers in an increasingly sophisticated fashion. Washington's fortunes on offense were bound to turn, at least to some degree. The other day, Tom Boswell expressed the idea by noting the Nats' lineup contained a bunch of guys failing to hit their career norms. This observation did not necessarily provide massive relief, because, as Boz also noted, the level of offensive production as of Friday was "ridiculous" -- an apt description for a team on pace to score the fewest runs per game in well over thirty years. Now, ascending a level or two above "ridiculous" only gets you to "very bad," which is likely where you'd get if the Nats reverted to the form suggested by Boswell. Specifically, he said the team should be averaging four runs per game, not three (the Nats were a little below that entering the weekend and are now a little above), and four runs per game would place the Nats twelfth in the NL. Twelfth would qualify as "very bad," but, no, it wouldn't be "ridiculous."

Thus, we must have known things would turn at some point and, though we could not know precisely when or how that would happen, we could have a decent idea. The Nats are a below-average offensive team in just about every category, obviously, but one area where the Nats were below-average could remedy itself over time. That area was in batting average on balls in play ("BABIP"), where the Nats are thirteen points below the NL average. BABIP is most commonly referenced as a part of DIPS theory but, since baseball is a zero-sum game, it is an important part of offensive function, one of four important hitting rates. While hitters are able to control their BABIP more than pitchers can, it would not have been unreasonable to expect the Nats' BABIP to rise a bit toward the league average. Furthermore, while there was no law decreeing the Nats' BABIP would start to rise immediately, it seemed Florida was a good mark to start the rise. As noted the other day, the Marlins had the worst defensive efficiency rating, the flip-side of BABIP; in other words, the Marlins convert to outs the lowest percentage of batted balls in play, and it's not particularly close. The Nats banged out fifteen hits on Friday evening; for the weekend, they had 29 hits on 82 balls in play. That's good for a .354 BABIP, at least 75 points higher than their mark coming into Friday's game and about 60 points better than the league average.

The obvious causal connection some will make is the influence of interim hitting coach Lenny Harris. Several times over the weekend, the MASN cameras captured Harris dispensing advice and offering dugout tutorials. I sort of mocked the idea of his instant influence early in the game on Friday (mere hours after he was announced as the interim guy), but I'm not in any position to refute the matter, nor would I particularly want to. If Lenny Harris is able to offer instruction that Mitchell Page for whatever reason could not, then the Nats are likely to be better offensively to some degree.

But this game works in constant revolution, so don't expect anything to continue unabated for very long. As explored in this space recently, even very bad teams have competitive stretches. And even very bad offenses can bust out a little bit from time to time.

* * * *

During his postgame press conference yesterday, Manny Acta commented that he likes his bench as it is currently constituted. Although Acta's use of his bench is sometimes curious, he's certainly correct that the bench is now more of a factor than it was. He has capable defensive outfield reserves, and Young/Batista/Belliard at least theoretically comprise a more potent combination than what Acta had at his disposal a couple weeks ago. And then there's the Rule 5 revelation, Jesus Flores, who sooner or later is going to force Acta's hand for some more regularl playing time. (How much more is up to Brian Schneider, who has busted out of a truly listless start and is the favored receiver of the starting rotation at this point.)

As bizarre as it may sound, praise should also be directed at the starting shortstop -- yes, Cristian Guzman. GUZMANIA! had an excellent weekend. But, then again, it's a long season. Let's see if this weekend lasts.

[A final note: The team's runs scored per game figure went up almost three-tenths of a run this weekend, which represents how utterly pathetic it was prior to the Florida series. The Nats are scoring 3.19 runs per game, which is actually next-to-last in the NL now. The Cardinals ("Now with Inexplicable Punchlessness!") are the league's worst at 3.10 runs per game. This might be a struggle for inverse supremacy worth tracking.]