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Down The Highway, Down The Bend, Down The Road To (Something Less Than) Ecstasy (But Not Bad!)

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When I was in middle school and high school, there was this guy a year ahead of me. He was really good at sports -- baseball, basketball, football, and looking like he could kick anybody's ass -- so we'll call him something authentic like Jock. They used to say all kinds of things about Jock, as they tend to do about anybody of such school-yard stature. They said he was related to an all-star forward (which was almost certainly not true). They said college scouts used to come out to see him when he was in the eighth grade (definitely not true). They said he roomed with A-Rod while on some amateur all-star team (perhaps true). And, according to sites like Baseball Reference and the Baseball Cube, they say he's the only player in the history of my high school to be taken in the MLB draft.

This is all to say Jock was a pretty big deal around my town. As it turned out, he wasn't a top pick, but word is he got a nice bonus. By my recollection, his pro career got off to a decent start but stalled out in low-A ball, when he first couldn't find a position and then couldn't hit. Jock is more of a memory these days; I haven't seen or heard of him in years, and the only reason his professional career is a matter of public record is because teh internets makes damn near everything a matter of public record.

But people still remember Jock in my town. Just a week or two ago, I was standing in line at Firestone -- a nearly interminable line, as it were, which gave me ample opportunity to strike up a conversation with the guy behind me. I noticed he was wearing a golf shirt bearing the name of the baseball team of the other high school in my town, which just happened to be the state champion and a top ten team in the country this season. He was the coach. Great guy -- a little nervous about his car passing inspection, but a really gracious sort and with ample knowledge of area baseball. Oh sure, he remembered Jock. If you were familiar with sports in my area, you'd certainly remember Jock.

And that's what Jock is, in context. He's nothing much on a broader scale; maybe he would even be considered something of a disappointment, if any of the front office or scouting types of the big league club that drafted him were still around, which they more than likely aren't. Jock's forgotten, and if you had no reason to care about him, then you wouldn't. But if you invested some pride in him and his accomplishments, then you would remember him. And you would be proud.

* * * *

In their own way, those are our Washington Nationals at the mid-way point of the 2007 season. If you have no reason to care about the Nats, then you might not recognize the significance of this season's performance, might not understand their fans have a special sort of pride in their efforts, and might not fathom how Boz could put the word "boast" in the same sentence as "32-43 record." Well, perhaps that last item is a bit unfathomable, especially when underscored by the team's 1-5 week following that column's publishing date. But when people don't invest much interest in something, their memories tend to be short. How many people who shrug at the Nats' 33-48 record remember back to three months ago, when many national pundits predicted heavy, "historically bad" losses?

Such predictions are something of a two-way sword. On the one hand, as Loverro implied the other day, a 120-loss prediction is tantamount to a competitive get-out-of-jail free card. For this reason, Loverro contends the Nats should be "thankful" for such predictions, because they in essence preemptively reframed expectations for a team that is, on the whole, performing at a 96-loss pace. On the other hand, those national predictions are just as relevant today as they were in mid-March, which is to say not very relevant at all. As we have explored numerous times, it's mighty hard to spot an historically bad team in advance, and it was just as presumptuous to predict this team to be one. On their own merits, the Nats are a bad team, and you'd surely recognize that from afar, but they are also a competitive team capable of good baseball, and that's something we can surely appreciate from a far more attuned posture.

So, with another three months left, here we stand. They're our group of Jocks. We will remember this team, even if no one else will. And we'll remember it fondly and, yes, with some pride. We'll know, on a broader level, the team isn't much at all. But -- if I may be so bold -- to us, the 2007 Nats are something. We'll recall this team fondly, even if our reasons, like the reasons for my hometown's fondness for Jock, are mainly provincial.

* * * *

A quick review of what the first half of the Nats' season has established:

Manny Acta Is Good At This Managing Thing

It's tough enough evaluating a manager. There are a lot of factors to consider -- lineup selection, in-game strategy, pitcher usage, and demeanor, to say nothing of won/lost record -- and getting a firm grasp on a manager's effectiveness is often hard enough before one really dwells on how much the manager actually influences the team's performance. This is particularly true of Acta. One wonders how he could have possibly been a failure in this first season of such low expectations.

But, whatever expectations could realistically be placed on Acta, I believe he's far exceeded them. Acta draws an occasional eyebrow, like most managers do, but he's a steady, positive guy. I'm not claiming any inside knowledge (far from it, of course, since I'm decidedly an outsider), but everything I've read about the team's clubhouse indicates Acta has the team's respect. And, it has been said, gaining the players' respect is the one, non-negotiable ability a manager must possess.

Acta is firm when he has to be, affirming at all other times. Judging by the postgame interviews, he's occasionally and appropriately blunt. He offers a realistic appraisal of what must be appraised, and I can only infer he does in private what he does in public. Acta started out his managerial career 9-25, but not once did he appear to hang his head.

His team is one game over .500 since that 9-25 start, which, if you'll pardon the digression, is a tidbit I consider fraught with potential inanity. It's one of those tidbits you could classify under the general banner of Sports Hearsay. This is to say, in the law, hearsay is considered "bad" when it's offered for the "truth of the matter asserted." Something similar is true here. If you say "the Nats are one game over .500 after a 9-25 start" for the purpose of asserting the Nats are pretty much of .500 quality (after that bad start, of course), then I'm going to object. In all likelihood, it's a baseless statement and one, I must observe, that attempts to render that 9-25 start entirely irrelevant. It's too convenient, too caught in the moment, and too ignorant of the various ebbs and flows that constitute a baseball season. But if you make that same statement for another purpose -- say, to express your state of mind concerning the team -- then the statement is far less perilous.

And so it is with Manny Acta's leadership of this team. His team started out 1-8 -- remember, it took a week-and-a-half just to get an in-game lead -- on its way to a 9-25 mark in early May. But Acta didn't fold out, didn't panic, and didn't lash out. He remained steady, showed some tough love when appropriate, and rode out a lot of injuries. And this Nats fan's state of mind is emboldened by how the team has responded to Acta's direction.

"Jim Bowden" And "Character Reference" Are Not Mutually Exclusive

There's a flip side to this "Jim Bowden and his Gang of Former Reds" thing, you know. We usually explore the more cynical side of things, as bloggers. So, yeah, there's the part about lacing the organization with guys who couldn't play, guys who couldn't manage, and guys who don't really make good studio analysts. But the flip side of this deal is that when Bowden vouches for a guy, he's vouching on the basis of prior experience. Unless his judgment is entirely not to be trusted, then his experience is potentially wortwhile.

This is all fluffy introduction to perhaps this season's most gratifying revelation, Dmitri Young. I'm not sure if more people laughed or revulsed when the Bowden signed Young. Dmitri seemed sort of washed up, and he did have a personal issue that certainly seemed revolting. But Young insisted medical issues rendered him something other than himself last season, and he insisted he merely needed a second chance. Bowden bet Young would make-good. Granted, it wasn't much of a bet -- there was no commitment involved, and Young would merely serve as placeholder for an injured starter -- but it was still a gamble.

One thing I love about baseball is how perceptions can change if you just take the time to watch the games and invest yourself in a team. Last season, I grew to love Alfonso Soriano. The 46 homers certainly didn't hurt, but there was something thrilling about watching him play independent of the 40-40(-40) status. Young is nowhere near as explosive a player, but he has put a face on a baseball cliche; he is, in a very real sense, a "professional hitter." And who, after reading about his travails last season and watching him jumble all over the field, would have guessed "professional" would have described Dmitri Young in any sense?

But that's what Dmitri is, and now he's added "2007 All-Star" to the list. He's undoubtedly a temp, and we shouldn't lose sight of that. But I'll enjoy watching him represent the Curly W, just the same.

It's Still Basically Ryan Zimmerman And A Thousand Guesses

Let's brush aside the obvious as quickly as we can: Zimmerman has been touched with the dreaded sophomore slump. He's lost about 40 points off his batting average, a bit more off his on-base percentage, his OPS+ is a chilly 90, and his defense has alternated between spectacular and unreliable at times. Whatever. He doesn't turn 23 until late September, and as Needham (who, by the way, is away for a week to stand in line for Transformers or something) has mentioned enough times already, Zimmerman will look like a 30+ homer guy once the team moves into the new park. In some ways, it'll be his new park. Zimmerman is the centerpiece, the franchise, and to this point really the one-man gang.

Aside from that, Matt Chico has established he's a pretty resilient guy, though I think it's far from certain he's built some solid ground as of yet, and Chad Cordero has re-affirmed he is indeed Chad Cordero, a pretty good closer given the right circumstances. Otherwise, we've seen Jim Bowden exploit the fat guy market inefficiency and this club extend starting invitations to nearly ever living pitcher since Howie Koplitz. And we've been told Stan Kasten prefers "the plan," uncapitalized, over "The Plan," capitalized, which might be a good thing, since "The Plan" sounds so rigorously pretentious and, meaning no offense to these fine gentlemen, any master plan cannot seriously be made to include Jason Simontacchi, Mike Bacsik, and Micah Bowie as rotational cogs in it, even for a nanosecond's worth of attention.

What else? Well, can Felipe Lopez and Austin Kearns still be considered part of this team's future? It's a legitimate question, and right now the answer seems to be trending toward the negative. Kearns is locked up, of course, but it's possible Lopez would be a non-tender candidate but for his past all-star appearance and the cache that type of thing brings. We'll see. Ryan Church demonstrated he could cover some ground in center, and then he went into a May/June tailspin that demonstrated he quite possibly is stretched as a regular. Kory Casto demonstrated nothing, which shouldn't necessarily harm his organizational status, insofar as he wasn't really given the opportunity to demonstrate anything. The team is still spinning its wheels in the outfield, and just about the only sure thing we could conclude in that regard requires no real conclusion: Nook Logan, Ryan Langerhans, and Brandon Watson are so far from the answer in center that the question cannot even really be composed necessitating the answer. Logan and Langerhans might have depth utility. I like Watson and feel bad he was sent down, but he doesn't even have a solid defensive rep upon which to hang his hat.

I could go on, but the future of this franchise is Zimmerman and a bunch of uncertains. That much hasn't changed. Even the partial first-half rotation breakouts, Shawn Hill and Jason Bergmann, are uncertains by reason of the specter of injury -- and for that reason, it might even be optimistic to label John Patterson an uncertain at this point. It's still Zimmerman and the uncertains, even if the uncertains have changed. They've changed via the draft (Detwiler and Smoker and Burgess and Zimmermann and that Stanford chap, McGeary, who will be a tough sign), and it's changed via 2007 movers and shakers. Who even knew who John Lannan was prior to the season? Now, he's a step away from the majors. Who thought Zech Zinicola would stall in his rapid pursuit of the majors?

And so forth. Zimmerman is the constant, so far.

Still, if the tone of this post is positive, please don't feel compelled to adjust your settings. There's not much point to this 2007 edition of the Washington Nationals, but don't tell that to the guys out on the field. Dmitri and fellow fatster don't care that this season is basically a fly-by until the new park opens; they're looking to reestablish their value, and it seems they're succeeding, especially Young. Don't tell Chico that the main reason to buy season tickets this year is to reserve a spot for next year, when the real fun begins; he's out there now, trying to make a name for himself. Don't tell Simontacchi and Bacsik that they don't belong because they stink; they mainly do stink, but they're putting in their all to stink a little less and stick around awhile longer, because awhile longer is all they have in this game.

It's not a good team, certainly, and it's not even an entertaining team. There's no power/speed combo fulcrum like Soriano. But there's a roster full of guys scratching and clawing and, yes, being scrappy on occasion. With a few notable exceptions, they've played hard all season and, with a few more notable exceptions, they've played smarter than past Nats teams did under Frank Robinson. They're on exactly the same pace the '06 Nats were, which means nothing to me in particular, but it seems a source of pride to some fans and to the guys in the MASN studios. And, to tell you the truth, I've got no problem with that attitude.

It's entirely possible this team still loses 100 games, but I'm ready to cheer on the drive to 72 wins.