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72 AND COUNTING

[September 27th] -- Although you can't tell, this is the fourth time I've started to write this story. Each time, the words and thoughts I wrote just didn't capture what I was feeling. I mean, the Nationals just swept the 1st place New York Mets, they came back from a 5-0 deficit and even scored two runs against Billy Wagner, something that just never happens. There was outstanding defense, timely hitting and - as usual - terrific relief pitching.

I am half tempted to delete that paragraph one more time and start over.

But, nah, it's too late for that.

I really didn't give the Nationals much of a chance of winning last night's game. Regardless of how well you're playing, it's just too hard to sweep the Mets at Shea Stadium (though to be fair, they are only four games over .500 at home this year). But sweep they did, and coupled with the Phillies' win against the Braves in Philadelphia, New York's lead is now just one game.

As Three Dog Night once said, "One is the lonliest number ...."

Observations from the game:

Ryan Church, the deposed starting center fielder, went 3-5 with a homer and four RBI's. He's now batting .275-15-70 in just 461 at-bats. Based on a 590 at-bat season, he'd have ended the year .275-18-91 with 54 doubles. Now, to be sure, he's hit much better since he's been reduced to a part-time player. Does this mean that he can't produce as a starter, or did he simply get hot late in the year and has played well over the past couple of months? Last year, he played well the last month and solidified his place on the roster in 2007. I have to believe that Church, had he been given the chance to play every day, would have had a very good year. Nook Logan played well initially as the team's everyday center fielder, but has seen his average drop from .291 to .261 over the last two months.

How much would a free agent cost who could hit .275-20-90? A lot. How much would Church cost next year? Not much. I think the team can afford to take a chance and pencil him in the starting outfield along with Wily Mo Pena and Austin Kearns. Play him in 130 games and give him plenty of rest. He'll produce. He has in the past and he will in the future. Time for the "great experiment" to be over and done with.

Wily Mo Pena went 2-4 with another 2 RBI's while hitting no homers. Pena is no longer the "all or nothing" slugger that came to the Nationals in August. He's hitting the other way and he's just making contact with runners on base. With his power, he could hit 20 "excuse me" homers along with another 20 that he muscled out of the park. His batting average has risen since his arrival from .218 to .256 in just 33 games. I wonder what Red Sox fans are thinking now that Pena is again playing up to his potential? And, no, you can't have him back.

The "real bullpen" (I'm not counting Joel Hanrahan's outing) pitched five innings of shutout ball, allowing just two hits and no walks. Luis Ayala pitched the 9th and dominated the Mets, something we haven't seen from Chad Cordero in quite some time. What does Ayala's entrance and Cordero's exit mean? I don't know. Perhaps Cordero was tired and was saved for the Phillies' series or perhaps Manny Acta simply didn't have the strength to watch Chad implode one more time (note: turns out that Chad barfed in his glove as he started to warm up). I think the Nationals need to accept that Cordero is one of the nicest players on the team and that he has to be traded before he is of no worth at all. Ayala has the ability to close as does Jon Rauch. Either of them would be a step up from what we have now. Perhaps Cordero will once again find his magic, but perhaps he won't.

So with three games remaining, the Nationals have surpassed last season's win total, and have the opportunity to dash the Phillies' playoff dreams just as they dashed the Mets'. But remember, the Nationals have never won a game in the team's final series of the year. They were swept by the Phillies in 2005 (when an above .500 record seemed a certainty) and they were swept by the Mets when they had the chance to reach 74 wins, a good number for that group of players. So until something changes, I can't count on them to do well in Philadelphia this weekend. But isn't it nice to know that they'll finish no worse than 72-90? And, perhaps even better, is the near assurance that the team won't finish last. The Nationals would have to lose all their remaining games while the Marlins must win all of theirs. Possible, but not likely. Highly unlikely.

Way to go guys. Way to go.


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