No pennants have been won in April, the month on the baseball calendar that tells more lies than any other. But the Nationals’ start has validated their hope that they are leaving a dismal past for a bright future. Through 16 games, or 10 percent of the season, they have validated the talk with success on the field.
“It gives us the confidence that we have the talent on this team to do whatever we want,” second baseman Danny Espinosa said. “We’re not even playing that well, in my eyes. Not everyone is hitting. Not everyone is clicking exactly where they want to be right now. For us to be winning ballgames against tough teams and still not have everything going 100 percent right, it’s a pretty good sign.”
The Nationals have used their hot start to prove, to both the league and themselves, that they can move from also-ran to contender. Even if they’re in first place, the Nationals’ start means little in the standings at this juncture; the last-place Philadelphia Phillies have plenty of time to make up a five-game deficit. What does it mean to the Nationals? The start reassured them and created an expectation to win.
“It’s a huge mental hurdle,” veteran Mark DeRosa said. “The guys in here, we thought we had a good team coming out of camp, ready to win. Until you do it, you don’t really, truly know. I think it validates all the talk. It is very early. But we know as a team we can win.”
The Nationals have thrived on close games, holding teams down with their dominant pitching staff and scraping out just enough runs with an offense playing without projected cleanup hitter Michael Morse, on the disabled list until midseason because of a strained right lat. The Nationals have gone 7-3 in games decided by one run or in extra innings. Already, they have won two 2-1 games, two 3-2 games and a 1-0 game.
Over a full season, one-run games typically even out for every team. The Pythagorean Winning Percentage formula, an accurate predictor of future success, gauges where a team’s record should stand based on runs scored and allowed. The Nationals have out-performed their expected record but still, at 10-6, have the third-best Pythagorean winning expectancy in the majors.
“The mettle of a team is winning close ballgames,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “As a manager, I’ve always looked at our record in close games. That talks about clutch hitting. Clutch pitching. That’s very important if you’re going to contend. You can’t get beat up in these close ballgames.”