Reporting David Elfin
It happens every 37 years in baseball.
In 1914, Boston was 16 games under .500 on June 8 and still 11 games out of first place in the National League on July 29 before an astonishing 52-14 finish gave the “Miracle Braves” by 10.5 games.
In 1951, the New York Giants trailed archrival Brooklyn by 13 games on Aug. 10 after being swept out of Ebbets Field by the Dodgers. After losing again the next day, New York went an amazing 37-7 to force a three-game playoff for the NL pennant which it won on Bobby Thomson’s dramatic walk-off home run.
And after a 2-9 skid in 1978, New York was 14 games behind Boston in the American League East on July 18. The Yankees rebounded to go 52-21 the rest of the way, edged the Red Sox in the one-game playoff and then repeated their postseason victories over Kansas City and the Dodgers to remain the World Series champions.
Since history says that we’re not due for another “miracle” for another two years, the Nationals have to start their turnaround in Atlanta this weekend without divine intervention although the way they’re going, it seems like they need just that.
Two nights ago in Baltimore, Washington wasted a record three-homer night by third baseman Ryan Zimmerman that had staked 2013 ace Jordan Zimmermann to a 6-3 lead in the seventh inning and wound up losing 9-6.
Last night, the Nats managed just three hits as a team in being shut out by the Orioles 2-0.
At 27-27, Washington is five games behind last year’s pace that ultimately provided a major league-leading 98 victories and the NL East title. The Nats are also five and a half games behind the front-running Braves as they begin their three-game series at Turner Field. The Braves have won five of the seven matchups so far, outscoring the Nats 30-13. An Atlanta sweep this weekend just might require a “miracle” comeback by Washington, especially since the rivals won’t meet again until Aug. 5.
There is some good news amidst the gloom of a team that has been playing without three regulars and has lost 12 of its past 19 and the mojo it had during its surprising 2012 season. The Nats’ run production doubled during the past seven games to 4.43 from 2.44 during the previous nine contests. Led by Zimmerman – who leads the team with a .290 average and 28 RBI — they’re batting .268 with 22 extra-base hits during their current surge.
One of the hot Nats is Steve Lombardozzi, who’s on the verge of displacing Danny Espinosa at second base. While the former has six hits in his last 20 trips (.300), Espinosa is in a 4-for-41 drought and just 1-for-7 since he returned after resting his long-ailing wrist for five games.
While right fielder Jayson Werth’s tight right hamstring hasn’t healed during his rehab assignment in the minors meaning that he’ll remain on the disabled list along with catcher Wilson Ramos, No. 5 starter Ross Detwiler and middle reliever Ryan Mattheus, 2012 Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper hopes to return to the outfield tonight after missing the four games with Baltimore with bursitis in his left knee. That injury first occurred when Harper ran into the wall at Dodger Stadium, two weeks after the headstrong 20-year-old had a collision with an similarly immovable object at Turner Field. Although Harper has cooled since his sizzling April, he’s still hitting .287 with 23 RBI and a team-leading 12 homers.
Manager Davey Johnson will also have the right man on the mound to start the series against the Braves. Right hander Stephen Strasburg struck out nine in an eight masterful innings last time out and held opposing hitters to a .173 batting average during his past three starts while allowing just two extra-base hits.
Strasburg’s fellow 2012 All-Star, Gio Gonzalez pitches tomorrow. The left hander, who struggled in April with a 5.34 earned run average, had a 2.53 ERA in May despite a rough outing on Memorial Day against the Orioles. Gonzalez allowed just 25 hits during 32-2/3 innings during his last five starts while striking out 24 and walking just 12.
If Strasburg and Gonzalez – a combined 36-14 last season – can beat the Braves, who have lost three of five after an eight-game winning streak, then even if 25-year-old rookie Nathan Karns loses his second big league start on Sunday, the Nats will leave Atlanta closer to leading the division then they are now. That would be a welcome development as they finish a 32-game stretch that included 22 on the road and 19 against winning teams and get them jump-started back towards playoff contention. But if this weekend’s a disaster, we might all really start wondering if Washington’s glorious 2012 season was a fluke, not a harbinger.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin