Two things stood out in the Nationals' come-from-behind, 11-9 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers Thursday night.
Both of them were positive, and both were surprising.
First, the Nationals plated 11 runs and meted out 18 hits against the first-place Dodgers. They now have a .275 team batting average (third in the league), a .363 on-base percentage (second), and have drawn 125 walks (second). They are on pace to score in excess of 150 more runs this season than last.
Based on current stats, here are the projections for the Nationals' starting lineup over a full season:
SS-Cristian Guzman: .392-6-42, .392 OBP, .500 SLG
1B-Nick Johnson: .330-12-66, .414 OBP, .430 SLG
3B-Ryan Zimmerman: .336-30-120, .391 OBP, .560 SLG
LF-Adam Dunn: .290-42-138, .445 OBP, .559 SLG
CF-Elijah Dukes: .290-24-224, .370 OBP, .506 SLG
RF-Austin Kearns: .258-18-90, .410 OBP, .515 SLG
C-Jesus Flores: .301-18-78, .372 OBP, .494 SLG
2B-Anderson Hernandez: .328-0-48, .430 OBP, .403 SLG
Last year, the Nationals had a pathetic .323 on-base percentage. This year, Dukes has the team's worst on-base percentage at .370.
And with the exception of Adam Dunn, this is basically the same starting lineup that was the worst National League offense in 2008.
What's the difference? For the most part, the Nationals have remained healthy in 2009 after leading the major leagues in lost player days to injury last year. That, and the team also had the youngest starting lineup in the National League in 2008. Players like Hernandez, Flores, Zimmerman, and Dukes are a year older and a year better.
The second bright spot coming out of Los Angeles was pitcher Jordan Zimmermann. Now, you'd think that a pitcher who gave up six runs in six innings while walking three and seeing his ERA jump from 4.24 to 5.48 would be hiding in the showers, unwilling to give an interview or read the morning papers.
But really, Zimmermann pitched two different games in one night against Los Angeles. In the first game, he gave up six runs while allowing four hits and two walks. In the second game, over five innings, the 22-year-old gave up just two hits and a walk.
In the first inning, Zimmermann was overthrowing, which made his change-up break so much that he couldn't locate it for strikes. He was forced to go with his fastball as his primary pitch.
In that first inning, Zimmermann struck out Rafael Furcal, walked Orlando Hudson on a 3-2 pitch, and then gave up a broken-bat flare to Andre Ethier that fell in a four-foot Bermuda Triangle in between Dunn, Dukes, and Guzman.
James Loney hit a solid single into center, and Russell Martin walked before Matt Kemp slugged a grand slam.
The sixth run of the inning should have been unearned. Casey Blake hit a medium-deep fly ball to right center, but Dukes and Dunn both pulled away at the last minute, allowing Blake to make it to third on what was ruled a triple but really should have been an error.
Blake scored on a sacrifice fly.
And that was it.
Over the next five innings, Zimmermann was in total control, allowing just those two hits and a walk, throwing two-thirds of his pitches for strikes.
Zimmermann showed the Nationals a great deal on Thursday.
For most young pitchers—heck, for most pitchers period—a six-run first inning would have unnerved them so much that they would have to be removed from the game quickly.
But Zimmermann showed the Nats his bull-dog tenacity, settling down and allowing the team the opportunity to get back in the game.
It doesn't much matter what Zimmermann's stats look like come September. He's already shown that he can dominate major league hitters, that he can win when he doesn't have his good stuff, and that he will keep battling regardless of score or situation.
Manager Manny Acta said last night that the Nationals are a couple of bullpen arms and a No. 1 starter away from contending for the playoffs.
I believe him.
Four of the team's five starters—John Lannan, Scott Olsen, Shairon Martis, and Zimmermann—give the team the opportunity to win every night.
If the Nationals trade one or two of their excess outfielders for veteran bullpen help, and if Stephen Strasburg signs quickly and pitches up to his talent, the Nationals could—I stress, could—have a solid second half and reach the end of the season primed to contend in 2010.
Sure, all the planets have to align for all of this to happen, but the Nationals are that close to turning the corner.