Phil Wood: Nationals still winning despite scoring drought

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Sports,Phil Wood

What plagued the Nationals' bats in 2011 seems to have a lingering effect. In eight of the team's first 14 wins this year, the Nats scored three or fewer runs -- a major league record for the start of a season.

Despite the way it may look, this particular slow start has some fairly positive ancestors, though with one fewer victory in the same number of season-opening wins. The 1907 Cubs did it and went on to win the World Series. More recently, the 1981 Dodgers pulled it off and also went on to win the pennant and World Series in that strike-interrupted split season. A handful of others in between did it as well with later postseason success, but it's no guarantee.

The 1963 Pirates scored three or fewer runs in seven of their first 14 victories and managed to end the year in eighth place, finishing above only Houston and New York in that pre-divisional play era. That Pittsburgh roster featured an in-his-prime Roberto Clemente and a young Willie Stargell, along with Jayson Werth's uncle, Dick Schofield. They had a couple of solid starting pitchers in Bob Friend and Don Cardwell, but that scoring drought lasted most of the season as the club averaged only 3.5 runs per game and managed only 74 wins.

The surprising aspect of the Nats' offensive struggles is that their major producers this year -- Adam LaRoche, Ian Desmond and Werth -- were less than stellar at the plate in 2011. Ryan Zimmerman had only really started to hit when he was shelved with shoulder problems, and Michael Morse is still on the DL. Their saving grace this month has been some remarkable work by their starting rotation.

Entering this weekend against Los Angeles, four of the five starting pitchers had compiled sub-2.00 ERAs, with Edwin Jackson having a solid 3.16 ERA. As a staff, they featured an MLB-leading 2.20 ERA, with 169 strikeouts in 176 innings. No one should expect they'll match those figures through 162 games, but it's a snapshot of why this team needs to be taken seriously.

Only one other Washington team ever could match the Nationals' starting mark of 14-4. The 1932 Senators -- also managed by a gentleman named Johnson -- finished the year at 93-61. Unfortunately, the Yankees won 107 games and the A's 94, so the Senators settled for third place.

And their manager, the iconic Walter Johnson, was fired. Owner Clark Griffith loved him like a son, but thought he was too easy going, so he replaced him with shortstop Joe Cronin, who would later become Griffith's son-in-law. Cronin would win 99 games and the AL pennant in 1933.

The current skipper named Johnson said last winter that if he didn't win with this club, he expected to be fired. It looks like Davey Johnson may not have to worry about that.

Examiner columnist Phil Wood co-hosts the "Mid-Atlantic Sports Report" and is a regular contributor to "Nats Xtra" on MASN. Contact him at philwood@washingtonexaminer.com.

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Phil Wood

Staff reporter - sports
The Washington Examiner