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STEVE DESHAZO: O’s, Nats are up-and-comers, but not true contenders yet
WASHINGTON—Even more surprising than the sudden relevance of this weekend’s “Battle of the Beltways” is the fact that both upstart teams are thriving at the season’s quarter pole despite glaring flaws.
The Baltimore Orioles have blindsided baseball’s experts, boasting the American League’s best record (26–14) after winning last night’s series opener 2–1 on Nick Markakis’ 11th-inning solo home run. This despite a mediocre 4.05 earned-run average from their starting pitchers and the second-most errors (39) in the big leagues. Leading the majors in home runs (62) and bullpen ERA (2.09) helps mitigate those shortcomings.
Meanwhile, a pitching staff with baseball’s best overall ERA (2.90) and most strikeouts (341) has allowed the Washington Nationals to hang around the top of the National League East standings, compensating for an injury-riddled lineup that has produced a meager .243 team batting average (.220 with runners in scoring position).
If you’re a fan of either team (or both), savor this weekend’s three-game series at Nationals Park and the return set for June 22–24 at Camden Yards. A World Series rematch seems farfetched—at least this year.
Oh, there was plenty for fans of both teams in Friday night’s late-arriving crowd of 36,680 to cheer.
If not for Texas’ Josh Hamilton, Baltimore’s Adam Jones might be the American League MVP leader, and Washington’s Stephen Strasburg is arguably baseball’s most dominant pitcher not named Justin Verlander. If the Orioles’ young pitchers mature and the Nationals can stay healthy, each team seems poised for future success.
And don’t discount the value of veteran managers Davey Johnson and Buck Showalter infusing confidence and fundamentals into young teams with no pedigrees. Johnson has a World Series ring and the No. 2 winning percentage (.562) among living managers, while Showalter laid the groundwork for future World Series appearances in New York, Arizona and Texas. That helps explain how Baltimore has baseball’s best road record (14–5) and Washington is still 10–7 in one-run games.
Still, it’s hard to imagine either team (neither of which has experienced a 21st-century playoff race) sustaining this pace for four more months. To constitute a real contender (even in a season of expanded playoffs), it might be necessary to merge the franchises into a mini-all-star team.
Imagine a rotation dominated by Washington’s Strasburg (3–1, 2.25 ERA), Gio Gonzalez (5–1, 2.22) and hard-luck Jordan Zimmermann (2–4, 2.58), with Baltimore’s Taiwanese rookie, Wei–Yin Chen (4–0, 2.45) and Jason Hammel (4–1, 2.68), with the Orioles’ Jim Johnson (22 straight saves converted) closing. That doesn’t even include Jake Arrieta and Edwin Jackson, who pitched brilliantly Friday night.
They could pitch to the Orioles’ gold glove-winner Matt Wieters, who has eight homers and can give Buster Posey a run for best young catcher.
Put Washington’s Adam LaRoche (.327, 30 RBIs) and Ryan Zimmerman (struggling at .232 but great with the glove) on the corners of the infield, with Baltimore’s Robert Andino (.268) and J.J. Hardy (nine homers) up the middle, with Nationals phenom Bryce Harper (.247) in left field and Baltimore’s Jones (13 homers, gold glove defense) in center and Markakis (seven) in right. Let Baltimore’s Wilson Betemit DH until Washington’s Michael Morse or Jayson Werth comes off the disabled list.
These franchises are intertwined, anyway, by more than the regional TV network that broadcasts both their games.
Orioles backup first baseman Nick Johnson was Montreal’s best player when the Expos relocated to D.C. in 2005. A gruesome broken leg caused him to miss the 2007 season and hastened the end of his stay, but he said before the game that “I’ve still got a lot of friendships over there,” citing Zimmerman in particular, and that he’s happy for the Nationals’ success.
“I read the paper. I pay attention,” he said.
Davey Johnson, the Nationals’ skipper, returns the favor. He played eight seasons for the Orioles and managed them to their last winning season, in 1997. Peter Angelos, in his infinite wisdom, fired Johnson on the same day he won the 1997 AL manager of the year award, and after Johnson got past the snub, he suffered along with his former team from afar.
“Any time you play for a club, you have great regard for that club. They become your favorite, and you want to see them do well,” said Johnson, 69. “I’ve followed them since I was a teenager, and that was a long time ago. I’m really happy they’re playing great, sitting at the top of their division—a very tough division.”
Johnson isn’t even the only former Oriole to manage the Nationals. Their first skipper was Frank Robinson, whom the Orioles honored with a statue outside Camden Yards last month.
Asked about his favorite Oriole memories, Johnson said he cherished the team’s off-field shenanigans. He cited a party after winning the 1966 World Series, when he and catcher Andy Etchebarren noted Robinson (that year’s AL MVP) at the bottom of a filled swimming pool.
“We both jumped in the pool and saved him,” Johnson said. “He didn’t know how to swim, and he was nothing but muscle, so that was a struggle but we dang sure weren’t going to let him drown.”
At the moment, both Johnson’s current employer and his former one have their heads above water. Enjoy it while it lasts.
Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443