NEW YORK | Seeing a path to improvement was easy.
After a season filled with injuries, under-performing pitching and a manager who appeared rigid in crisis, anticipating that the Washington Nationals would be better in 2016 than 2015 made sense. Simply putting their regular players on the field more often would likely produce better results than last season’s group that was 48-39 at the all-star break and 83-79 by the time the season wheezed to a close.
The vibe and results are much improved as the Nationals’ four-day break begins. A team-record five players will be going to Tuesday’s All-Star game in San Diego. Second baseman Daniel Murphy, plucked from free agency as the Nationals’ Plan B after the New York Mets made plans without him, has been a revelation. Dusty Baker’s swashbuckling style has been embraced. First-place Washington’s 54-36 record ties the most wins prior to the all-star break in franchise history. The 1994 Montreal Expos were 54-33 when the hiatus hit.
The offense is better: 4.68 runs per game before the break this season versus 4.27 last year. The pitching is also better: 3.52 runs allowed per game as opposed to 3.86 in 2015. Sunday’s 3-2 win against the Mets served as the final leap into some time off. Washington leads second-place New York by six games.
“It was a good first half,” outfielder Jayson Werth said. “Feel good about it. Think we played good baseball. Think we still haven’t played our best baseball, we played good baseball. Our team’s starting to mesh. Things are starting to fall into place. I think Dusty’s done a good job of pulling the right strings. He took his time with learning his team and getting to know his team. I think he was real meticulous about it. He didn’t push the issue anywhere, he was real patient. I think that’s one of the things that really kind of set us apart.”
Baker has also done a few things differently than his predecessor and friend, Matt Williams. Each 24-hour period was a sacred trust to Williams, who was adamant no one day was different than another. Baker proved he didn’t believe in that through actions and words in the last week.
July 4, Murphy was only used to pinch-hit, taking his first day off from starting since June 16. July 6, catcher Wilson Ramos took a break. He came to the clubhouse Sunday morning after catching three consecutive games, including the one the night before, and again pulled on his catching gear. Also on July 6, Danny Espinosa did not start. Baker was refueling his crew for the final four games against the reigning National League champions. When the series began, New York was just four games back and a sweep would produce a tie at the break. Instead, the Nationals won three of four, lead by six and are watching their languishing rival try to maintain through mounting injuries.
“That’s why I gave [Ramos] a day off the other day because I knew he was going to catch the whole series,” Baker said. “I gave Murphy a day off because I knew he was going to play the whole series. I gave Espinosa a day off — I wasn’t looking past the [Milwaukee] Brewers] — but we knew that this was a very, very important series. I want the guys to leave from here on empty then refill your tank then come back.”
Better health has allowed Baker a lineup consistency Williams did not have. Murphy’s league-leading hitting has also provided a weapon to keep the offense moving despite Bryce Harper tailing off after a herculean first month. Harper enters the break hitting just .256, though knows how valuable the team’s overall health has been.
“With Matt, you had 96 wins then people weren’t healthy, then we dropped down,” Harper said. “I think Matt did a great job with us. Me, personally, I had a blast playing for him. But, I guess when you don’t win you’ve got to blame somebody. That was a big thing.
“When they brought in Dusty Baker, everybody was excited and thrilled. We’re more than happy to have him. He’s done a great job with us. The thing about Dusty that I love is he’s all about the unit, all about family and really brought us together in camp. Told us it’s not about any of you guys, it’s not about me, it’s all about us. If we pull on that same rope every single day, then we’ll be fine. It’s definitely been a lot of fun playing for a guy that’s been around the game for a long time. I respect the hell out of him and everybody in this clubhouse does.”
Ramos, Murphy, Harper, Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer will head to San Diego for the All-Star game. The rest of the Nationals will scatter. Baker tries to go to a place he has not been during each all-star break. This year, he plans to go to St. Michaels, Maryland with a light calendar.
“Relax, get a massage, do some fishing and just chill,” Baker said.
But, Baker didn’t return to the manager’s seat just so he can do something new for the all-star break. He’s back to make it to the one place that has eluded him for almost 50 years of professional baseball: celebrating as the World Series champion. The start has been promising enough that his preferred end is still an option.
• Todd Dybas can be reached at email@example.com.
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