Nationals get vote of confidence

Ryan Zimmerman has anchored a Nationals lineup that’s hitting .316 since July 25. Ryan Zimmerman has anchored a Nationals lineup that’s hitting .316 since July 25. (Hyungwon Kang/Reuters)
By Howard Fendrich
Associated Press / August 11, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Bad as could be for long stretches this season, the last-place Washington Nationals suddenly are the best team in baseball.

Really? Best in baseball? Well, yes, they are at the moment: The Nationals enter tonight’s game against the Braves in Atlanta with eight consecutive victories, the longest active streak in the majors. And the recent run of success stretches back further than that.

Dating to July 25, the Nationals are 12-4, the sport’s top record in that span.

“I’ve always been optimistic about what we have in place. I’m more optimistic because I see it coming to fruition at a pretty rapid pace. We have a good, young core of players,’’ acting general manager Mike Rizzo said yesterday.

“I still have the sentiment that we’re not that far away from being a good, competitive ballclub.’’

Even he won’t get too carried away by what’s been happening lately, though.

After all, Washington is a majors-worst 40-72 in 2009, putting the club on pace to lose more than 100 games for the second year in a row. Aside from wins and losses, what happens over the next week could be really crucial to where this franchise is headed: The deadline to sign No. 1 overall draft pick Stephen Strasburg is Aug. 17; Rizzo wouldn’t comment about those negotiations.

“I never believed we were as bad as the team was when we were bad. And we’re probably not as good as an eight-, nine-, 10-game winning streak type of team,’’ Rizzo said. “But right now, we’re playing good, fundamental, clean baseball.’’

The Nationals’ current streak - two victories at Pittsburgh, followed by home sweeps of Florida and Arizona - is their longest since a 10-game run in June 2005, the ex-Expos’ first season in Washington.

Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, for one, offered as simple an explanation as could be: “It’s just us playing better.’’

There are three obvious, on-the-field reasons for the winning ways: consistently good defense; a much-improved bullpen (5.71 ERA and 14 saves in 34 chances before the All-Star break, compared to a 2.98 ERA and eight saves in 10 chances since); a productive lineup anchored by Nos. 3-5 hitters Zimmerman (.306 average, 24 homers, 75 RBIs), Adam Dunn (30 homers for a sixth straight season), and Josh Willingham.

Asked to what he attributes Washington’s performance of late, Rizzo quickly pointed to the defense - and specifically to the extra pregame fielding practice instituted by interim manager Jim Riggleman, who replaced the fired Manny Acta in the dugout July 16.

“Defensively, we’ve come a long way in the last three, four weeks,’’ Rizzo said. “Since Jim has taken over, each and every day we’ve been at home, we do some type of defensive drill. It wasn’t a real popular thing with the players, but they’re on board with it now. . . . The attention and the importance put on it by myself and by Jim has really been taken to heart by the players and made a renewed focus on becoming a better fundamentally sound ballclub. Our sacrifice bunts, our hitting behind runners, our situational hitting has all been better.’’

Washington was averaging about an error per game - 94 miscues in 96 games - before July 25. Since then? A total of five errors in 16 games and an NL-best fielding percentage of .992.

“Riggleman stressed on us: ‘You’re going to clean it up,’ ’’ center fielder Nyjer Morgan said.

Morgan was acquired from Pittsburgh in a trade June 30, giving Washington its first consistent, traditional leadoff hitter since leaving Montreal. Plus, the speed that has allowed Morgan to steal 36 bases this season also helps him play a much stronger center field than the Nationals are used to.

Since July 25, the Nationals are scoring a majors-high 7.06 runs per game, and leading the NL with a .316 batting average, .386 on-base percentage, and .527 slugging percentage.

“We’re definitely getting great hitting,’’ Morgan said.

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