Reporting David Elfin
When the resident baseball team gathers again today at Nats Park, the mood figures to be somber, the look in the eyes shell-shocked. That’s natural when all the brave talk by the players and their manager about their mega-disappointing first three and a half months turning around after the All-Star break was shown to be just talk during the weekend’s sweep by the visiting Dodgers.
Not only did Washington lose three straight to Los Angeles, it went down with its three aces, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, on the mound. Admittedly, Strasburg pitched well other than allowing a two-run homer, and Gonzalez was lights-out, but the Nats’ floundering offense produced all of five runs.
Other than Jayson Werth’s two home runs in yesterday’s 9-2 drubbing in which All-Star Zimmermann delivered the worst performance of his career, the only good news was that National League East frontrunner Atlanta and Cincinnati, which holds the NL’s playoff berth, both lost, allowing Washington to stay seven games back of both at 48-50.
But as the downbeat Nats emerge from the home dugout for batting and fielding practice – and boy do they need both as they rank 13th out of 15 teams in the former category and 14th in the latter – they should take a good, hard look at the carefree bunch from Pittsburgh whom they’ll be playing over the next four days.
The Pirates know from hard times better than any team in the majors. In fact, Pittsburgh’s 20 straight losing seasons is a major pro sports record. But after beating the Reds yesterday, the Pirates are 57-39, just two games behind baseball’s best team, St. Louis, in the NL Central and three games ahead of the Reds in the battle for the first wild card spot.
That’s an amazing accomplishment nearly 60 percent of the way through the season for a franchise that has been down since George H.W. Bush was in residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
From 2005-10, Washington was 147 games under .500. No NL team was close to that bad. Except for Pittsburgh, that is. The Pirates were 185 games under .500. That’s an average of 31 games under each season. Pittsburgh had a losing record after every single game in 2006 and only made it past May 4 with a winning mark in one of the other five years. That was in 2005, when that relative success lasted all the way to June 12. There was no joy in the ballpark during the summers in the ‘Burgh.
Things began to change in 2011 when the Pirates were still winners on Aug. 3 only to collapse to a 72-90 finish, which was still their best in seven years. Last season, Pittsburgh was 10 games over on Aug. 25 and even on Sept. 19 only to wind up at 79-83.
So if the Nats feel like Wile E. Coyote did after getting smacked in the face by a frying pan following eight losses in their past 10 games, they should consider the resiliency of the Pirates. Ross Ohlendorf pitched for Pittsburgh from 2009-11 and can certainly fill in his teammates on what those years were like.
Third baseman Pedro Alvarez, outfielders Garrett Jones, Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata, and pitchers James McDonald (currently on the disabled list) and Charlie Morton played for the 2010 Bucs, who lost 105 games. Manager Clint Hurdle, infielder Josh Harrison and pitchers Jason Grilli, Jared Hughes (also on the DL) Jeff Locke and Tony Watson were all part of the late-summer nosedives the past two years.
That’s a fairly substantial part of Pittsburgh’s roster that has survived the agony and emerged into the sunshine of the third-best record in the majors, trailing only the Cardinals and the Boston Red Sox.
Washington manager Davey Johnson, who’ll send struggling veteran Dan Haren and rookie Taylor Jordan to the mound the next two nights as the Nats try to avoid falling three games under .500 for the first time since Sept. 24, 2011, knows that his team can still deliver a renaissance.
Johnson’s 1996 Baltimore Orioles lost seven of eight to fall under .500 on July 26. They went 38-23 the rest of the way to grab the American League’s then-lone wild card berth.
That was a franchise that hadn’t reached postseason in 13 years. In contrast, these Nats know how to win. Seventeen of the current 25 players contributed to baseball’s best record last season and were a strike away from the NL Championship Series. It’s beyond time for them to show that last season wasn’t a fluke, that this year’s funk isn’t who they truly are.
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