Strike One—First Place
It’s a mistake to make too much of it. We’re still nearly a month away from the halfway point of the season and, over time, it’s likely that the payroll advantage that each of the other teams in the Nationals’ division possesses will come into play.
It’s an even bigger mistake, however, to make nothing of it. Just think of all the fun you’re missing out on.
In fact, it is precisely because of the fact that it’s not likely to last that makes it all the more important that you have some fun with it. After all, a Washington baseball team being in first place after Memorial Day hasn’t happened in 72 years. Now, with the division setup that wasn’t there for all but a few years of the old Senators/Nationals existence, it’s likely that this will happen again before the year 2077.
Still, you don’t know how long it will last. Take a moment to smile, to say the words “First place Washington Nationals”, to brag a bit. Send that Yankee fan buddy of yours an email about what it’s like. Perhaps if you have a cold adult beverage this evening, lift your glass to the Nats.
Strike Two—Close Games
No doubt, the Nationals have been involved in some exciting ball games this year. Of their 57 games, 19 have been decided by one run and Washington has won 12 of those. The Nats have come back from a deficit to win 21 times this year.
Such results lead to adjectives such as scrappy, determined, never-say-die, and the like. Those are certainly apt descriptions. It’s also often said that coming from behind and winning the close ones are the marks of a good team. That’s not necessarily true.
Let’s look at the Chicago White Sox, the team with the best record in baseball at 37-19. Fifteen of their wins are of the come-from-behind variety. That’s about 40% of their total of 37 wins. The Nationals’ 21 comeback victories represent 68% of their 31 wins.
The best teams in baseball don’t have to come from behind. They score runs early and often and keep their opponents at arm’s length behind them the whole way.
Right now, the Nationals are a lot of fun to watch in part because of the comeback factor. If they can eliminate the need to come back, they’ll be both fun to watch and a real threat to win the division.
Strike Three—Home Field Advantage
There were 40,995 at RFK Stadium to watch the Nationals win over Florida yesterday. The win moved the Nats’ record in front of home crowds of over 40,000 to 5-0. They’re now 7-1 when 35K or more show up at RFK and 10-2 with over 30,000 in attendance at home.
It’s natural to draw a cause and effect conclusion here, that after playing in front of sparse crowds at Olympic Stadium in Montreal, the Nats are getting a lift from playing in front of large crowds of supporters. Certainly numerous comments from the Nationals’ players over the last couple of months indicate that they believe the crowds help them out.
We may, however, be confusing cause and effect. If the Nats were ten games under .500, would over 40,000 have shown up at RFK on Sunday? They would have drawn better than the Expos in a similar spot, no doubt. There’s also no question that more people came out yesterday because the team was fighting for first place.
It has been pointed out that the Cubs have sold out Wrigley Field for years and years and they have continued to be mediocre. Their home field advantage hasn’t won them a World Series. A few years back when Mark McGwire was chasing Roger Maris’ home run record, the Cardinals drew huge home crowds. Any boost from that seemed to apply only to McGwire (or did he get his boost from a needle?) as the team floundered and finished well out of playoff contention.
The novelty of big crowds may well be helping the Nationals to some extent right now. If you’re not used to seeing the stands shake when you rally in the late innings, it has to pump you up.
But baseball isn’t so much a game of being pumped up as it is of steadiness and concentration. An adrenaline rush can make a player swing too hard at a changeup or pitch wildly.
At some point, the novelty of the big crowds will wear off and bouncing stands and deafening cheers will become part of the routine. It’s then that pitching and hitting and defense will determine the outcome of games. In fact, it’s likely that those are the major factors in the Nats’ success so far regardless of the size or enthusiasm of the crowds present.