The last time the Yankees played a ballgame in Washington, D.C. was September 30, 1971. Jim Acker gave up two runs in the bottom of the eighth to cap a comeback by the Senators, who had trailed 5-1 after five in their final game in Washington. With the Yankees trailing 7-5 in the top of the ninth, Felipe Alou and Bobby Murcer grounded out only to have the Senators’ fans pour onto the field forcing the game to be forfeited to New York, giving the Yankees a winning record of 82-80. The next year the Senators would play in Texas as the Rangers, swapping divisions with the Milwaukee Brewers. Both the Brewers and Rangers would finish in last place.
Thirty five years later the Yanks are back in DC and back in first place (a game up on both the Red Sox and Blue Jays), but the Washington club, wearing red caps that match those of the 1971 Senators, is still awful.
The Nationals don’t do anything particularly well, and their two best players are a pair of former Yankee prospects, Alfonso Soriano, who is just two behind the injured Albert Pujols for the major league lead in home runs with 23, and Nick Johnson, who in his peak age-27 season has yet to miss a game due to injury for the first time in his career. Nick the Stick is hitting a robust .309/.436/.554 and has walked nine times more than he’s struck out.
The Nationals actually have a fairly dangerous top five in their order, with Soriano inexplicably leading off and followed by Jose Vidro (hitting .309 with a .365 OBP, but virtually without any power), Johnson, 21-year-old phenom Ryan Zimmerman (on pace for 44 doubles, 22 homers and 100 RBIs), and the combative and injury-prone (read: undesirable) Jose Guillen. Guillen has an unimpressive stat line, but has gone 5 for 13 with two doubles, a homer and three walks since being activated following a stay on the DL due to a hamstring injury.
Of course, things drop off a cliff after the five spot. The last three men in the Washington line-up are lead by Royce Clayton’s .259/.315/.339. They’re so bad that when Livan Hernandez pitches he’s the best of the last four hitters in the Nats’ lineup. The Nats’ bench, meanwhile, is filled with multi-position players, but other than Daryle Ward, whose likely just enjoying a small-sample surge, none of them can really hit.
Then again, the Nats play in one of the most extreme pitchers parks in the majors, which is why their weaker hitters look so darn awful, and why their unexceptional pitching staff appears to be loaded with solid individual performances. The top three in their pen, closer Chad Cordero and righty set-up men Jon Rauch and Gary Majewski have done the job, as have rookie starters Shawn Hill and Michael O’Connor and rookie ROOGY Saul Rivera. What’s more, Ramon Ortiz, who was dreadful pitching his home games in the hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark last year, has been on a solid streak of late that has included three games at RFK but also three on the road, while former Yankee farmhand and Expos DL mainstay Tony Armas Jr. has been both active and effective and is still just 28 years old. Last year’s ace John Patterson is due to come off the DL soon and the Nats response just might be to deal innings eater Livan Hernandez. He may be their best bottom of the order hitter, but he’s their worst starter.
So things are looking slightly up for the Nationals. They have real owners at long last and plans for a new ballpark. Jim Bowden has hired Davey Johnson as a special advisor to save him from himself. Johnson and Zimmerman are a fantastic pair of corner infielders in their 20s, they’ve got a crop of young pitchers who are contributing to the big club, and to top it all off, Alfonso Soriano is taking walks. Yes, the 30-year-old converted second baseman who entered this season with a career rate of one base on balls per 22.23 plate appearances has been taking ball four once every 12.62 trips this year.
Tonight the Yanks send Jaret “Five Innings Are Just About” Wright to the mound to face 25-year-old righty Shawn Hill. The Canadian Hill made his major league debut with the Expos in 2004, pitched terribly and then missed all of 2005 following Tommy John surgery. Back in action this year, he excelled in eight starts for the Double-A Harrisburg Senators, made one triple-A start and was then called up to replace Zach Day in the rotation. He’s since made three starts for the Nationals, all of which have been quality, but two of which have resulted in hard-luck losses. In the two he’s made at home, Hill has allowed just one run on seven hits over 14 innings.