|Pittsburgh Pirates' Daryl Ward, left, is tagged out at home plate by Washington Nationals catcher Brian Schneider, right|
Major League Baseball is at its annual mid-season break for the All-Star Game. One of the biggest surprises of the season so far has been the Washington Nationals, who sit in first place in the National League's East Division after most experts picked them to finish last. The team has given the American capital something else to talk about besides politics.
At the beginning of the season, baseball fans in Washington were happy just to have a team after 34 years without the American pastime in their city. But after moving south from Montreal where the franchise was known as the Expos, the Nationals are in first place at the All-Star Break, and have made an impact beyond their new hometown.
They have particularly surprised those who think that a team's offensive statistics are the best predictor of a team's record. So far this season, the Nationals have scored four fewer runs than they have allowed (357 against 361), yet they have won 16 more games than they have lost (52-36). A major reason for this is that of the 34 games the Nationals have played that have been decided by one run, they have won 24.
Center fielder Brad Wilkerson admits, though, that all those close games have started to affect the team.
"I think it's starting to take its toll a little bit," he says. "I think our bullpen is starting to get a little worn down and I think the break's coming at a good time. We can rest our bullpen and, you know, rest our minds. Because if you have that many one-run ball games and heartbeat [very close] wins, it's going to take its toll on you mentally and physically."
Another big reason for the Nationals' success is 23-year-old relief pitcher Chad Cordero. He leads the Major Leagues with 31 saves and is one of two Nationals who made the league's All-Star team. Cordero's success has even surprised himself.
"To lead the league and stuff and then make the All-Star game, I never thought that would happen. But it feels good," he says.
Washington Nationals manager Frank Robinson didn't expect Cordero to be this good either. And Robinson has seen a lot of baseball, having spent 21 years as a player and 16 years as a manager.
"I don't think anyone in here who saw him at Spring Training could envision him having 31 saves at this point. No, I couldn't," he says.
The 69-year-old Robinson is also due his fair share of credit for the Nationals' success. While a recent magazine survey of league players voted him as the least-liked manager in baseball, Brad Wilkerson sees things differently.
"You know, he hasn't stepped in the way of anybody who's trying to play the game, and he lets us go out there and play our game, you know, and I think that's key for winning baseball," he says.
The question now is whether the Washington Nationals can maintain their success as a string of injuries and the 162-game-long season take their toll. The Nationals have faltered lately, losing five of their last seven games before the All-Star break. At the same time, the Atlanta Braves, winners of the last 13 National League East Division titles, have begun to hit their stride as the Nationals have faltered. The Florida Marlins are also in the race, thanks in large part to their strong pitching.
But Wilkerson thinks his team can hold off the Braves and Marlins and bring playoff baseball to Washington for the first time since 1933.
"You know, I think those are two of the teams we've got to watch out for, but I think if we take care of business and everything goes as planned, I mean, we're going to be right there at the end," Wilkerson says. "As long we don't roll over and a couple guys on our teams die, I think we're going to be right there at the end challenging for the division title."
Washington's baseball success has fans flocking to its home stadium. The Nationals have already doubled their attendance total for all of last season in Montreal and are averaging 33,328 fans per game. Many of them have not had a home baseball team of their own for their entire lives. This season has been quite a reward after waiting for so long.