Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Birds, Nats Clinch

Washington won its second division title in three years (Vavel)
Last night was a great night to be a baseball fan from the D.C. metro area. In Atlanta the Nationals blanked the Braves 3-0 to clinch the NL East for the second time in three years. In Baltimore the Orioles won their first division title since 1997, bludgeoning the Blue Jays 8-2 in front of a celebratory home crowd of 35,000-plus.

But while both of the nation's capital's baseball teams ended up in the same place--at the top of their division and postseason-bound--how they got there turns out to be two very different yet similar stories

It's impossible to talk about this season without first mentioning 2012, when both teams shed their also-ran status by making the playoffs. Washington was the best team in baseball that year, winners of 98 games and clear favorites to win the National League. The former Montreal Expos had been more or less irrelevant since moving to Washington after the 2004 season, never winning more than 81 games and finishing last in their division five times, but thanks to an influx of young talent and a killer pitching staff that had changed practically overnight. For the first time since 1933, there was playoff baseball in our nation's capitol.

That same year, the Baltimore Orioles also came out of nowhere to make the playoffs, winning 93 games and the AL Wild Card. The once-proud franchise had endured 15 straight losing seasons prior to its magical turnaround, going from a 69-93 last-place finish in 2011 to two games out of first the following year.

The Nationals were a veritable juggernaut. The Orioles were a Cinderella story, a good team that overachieved due to extraordinary luck in one-run games. And yet they both met the same fate: eliminated from the Division Series in five games, with Baltimore falling to their mighty division rivals from New York and Washington losing to the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals.

Still, 2012 was a banner year for the Nats, who were poised to be the crown jewel of the Senior Circuit for the foreseeable future. That season marked not just the beginning of a new era in Washington baseball, but also appeared to signal a changing of the guard in the NL East, a transition away from the Braves dynasty and Phillies mini-dynasty. With their tantalizing core of young position players (Bryce Harper, Ian Desmond, Wilson Ramos) and plentiful pitching (Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez), Washington was armed and ready be kings of NL East for years to come.

For the first time since Clinton's presidency, the O's are AL East champs (Baltimore Sun)
The Orioles, on the other hand, were treated as a fluke. There was no such talk of a repeat performance in 2013, much less the next Orioles dynasty. They had an outstanding core of in-their-prime position players (Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, Nick Markakis, J.J. Hardy), but not nearly enough arms to match their competitors in the AL East. Everyone knew that with natural regression they'd likely be a .500-ish team in 2013, and that's basically what happened. They won 85 games and fell back to the pack, finishing tied-for-third with the Yankees behind pitching-rich Boston and Tampa Bay. Nobody saw Baltimore as underachievers that year, but rather a club that played to its true talent level.

Not so with the Nationals, the preseason favorites to win the World Series. Washington was shockingly irrelevant last summer, 16 games out of first and four below .500 on the morning of August 20th. A late surge pushed them 10 games over .500 but still left them 10 back of the Braves and out of the playoffs. Almost the exact same results as the Orioles, one might notice, but drastically different expectations led to the Nationals' season being viewed as a massive disappointment, if not an outright failure.

Both responded with significant roster upgrades over the winter--Baltimore inked Nelson Cruz and Ubaldo Jimenez while Washington stole Doug Fister from Detroit--and have come back strong. The Nationals reclaimed their status as the top dog in their division and, as of this writing, the National League. Not that they had much competition--Atlanta was the only other rival with legitimate postseason hopes and now sits below .500--but first place wasn't guaranteed until mid-August, when Washington won 10 in a row and 12 out of 13 to wrap up the division. They've continued to roll since, breaking away from the pack and building their lead up to its high-water mark of 12.5 games.

Baltimore, on the other hand, wasn't given a snowball's chance in hell to win the AL East before the season began. The Orioles were widely viewed as one of the two weakest teams in the division, with the other being the Blue Jays. Boston, New York, and Tampa Bay were expected to duke it out for the top spot. Nobody gave Baltimore a second thought.

So when the Orioles were in first place for a good while in May, nobody thought it would last. And while they were only a few games over .500 for most of June, that was enough to stay near the top of the division. In early July they made their move, winning 10 of 13 leading up to the All-Star break to finish the first half 10 games above .500 and with a four game lead in the AL East. They've been in first place every day since, putting away the division with a torrid second half. Since the last day of June they've gone 49-21. That's a .700 winning percentage, folks, spanning almost half a season.

It's fitting that both teams ran away with their divisions around the same time, and that they'll likely finish the season with similar records. Because for the second time in three years, both teams will be playing in October, vying for the chance to compete in the first-ever all-DC area Fall Classic (a Beltway Series, I guess?). While I'd rather see a Freeway Series between the more exciting Dodgers and Angels (Yasiel Puig, Clayton Kershaw, and Mike Trout on the game's grandest stage? Yes please), that would be a pretty good series in its own right.

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