Saturday, August 04, 2007

Tomorrow A Red Letter Day for the Nats? -- There's no denying it. The Nats are, quite simply, hot. The Nats won their season-high fifth game in a row, with a 12-1 thrashing of the St. Louis Cardinals (who bear no resemblance to last year's World Series winning team). Once again, it was the Ryan Zimmerman show, as the second-year star had his first multi-homer game -- one night after he hit a ninth inning, (walk-off) game-winning single. OK -- so he's not going to challenge Barry Bonds' record (Bonds tied Aaron tonight), or Alex Rodriguez, who may surpass Bonds' home-run total someday (A-Rod hit his 500th today). Still, Zimmerman is a pretty special player -- the kind any franchise is fortunate to develop.

While Zimmerman is the cornerstone of the team's future, it's OK tonight to mention that the present isn't so bad, either. The Bonds and A-Rod milestone home runs made Saturday a red letter day in baseball history, but the Nats can make a little team history on Sunday. The Nationals are on the verge of a series sweep of the Cardinals. If they can win tomorrow, they would move out of the National League East cellar, provided the Florida Marlins lose to the Astros. It's that close.

The Nats are now one-half game behind the Marlins. With the injuries the Marlins' pitchers have suffered, and the way the Nats makeshift rotation has overcome the Nats' own pitching injury woes, it seems inevitable that the Nats will move past the Marlins, into fourth place. That really is far better than I predicted at the start of the season -- and better than anyone had a right to expect.

The truly amazing thing has been the contributions by Mike Bacsik, Tim Redding and Joel Hanrahan. Since the All-Star break, this threesome has outpitched any other three pitchers on any team in the National League. What makes this truly remarkable is these guys lost in the Nats' vast spring training auditions. They were the last pitchers to be sent to the minor league camp, but failing to make the Nats' staff is not the kind of thing to put on one's pitching resume. One of those three, or young John Lannan, is likely to be the one to surrender Barry Bonds' record-breaking home run next week, but they should be remembered for more this season than that ignominy. Amazingly, since the All-Star break, Redding, Bacsik and Hanrahan have each allowed fewer than 3 runs per game -- actually, they've each put up an E.R.A. of less than 3.00.

On top of that, the Nats' hitters are producing as they never have before. Zimmerman and Kearns are finally in good grooves, while Ronnie Belliard and Dmitri Young keep plugging along, hitting over .300. For the first time in memory, even pinch-hitters are delivering. D'Angelo Jimenez one night, Tony Batista another. I wrote that the Nats would win more games the second half than they did the first, but I'm positively giddy over how well the team is playing.

The Nats' management will have some tough decisions sorting out the rotation for the remainder of the year, and trying to figure out which of these pitchers will belong in next year's rotation. I don't envy them for having to make those calls. If they're on the horns of a dilemma, at least they're enjoying the ride.

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