After his previous start that yielded six runs and five walks to the Atlanta Braves in 5.1 innings, many thought that Washington Nationals rookie starter Luis Atilano may be starting to unravel. He shut those detractors up last night, however, as he threw 5.1 shutout innings helping the Nats topple the New York Mets to improve to second place in the National League East.
Deception was the key to Atilano's success Monday night, as young right-hander improved to 3-0 by earning the win on his 25th birthday.
In his previous start against Atlanta, where he got chased out of the game in the fifth, Atilano only threw one changeup that made an opposing pitcher swing and miss. Monday he threw it five times for a swing and miss, while also adding two whiffs from his slider and one from his curveball. His average pitch speed was slower than his previous start, registering around the mid 80's the entire game, but his stuff was clearly better as evidenced by the Mets only being able to muster five hits in five innings.
At the plate the Nationals were charged by back-to-back homers in the third inning from Adam Kennedy and David Wright which put the club up 2-0 in Queens. Ivan Rodriguez chimed in with four hits on the night, including an RBI single in the top of the 8th which proved to be the winning run as the Mets packed on a run in the seventh and a second run in the bottom of the ninth. All of Rodriguez's hits on the night were singles.
While the Nationals ran rampant on the base-paths, stealing five bases in five attempts on Mets catcher Rod Barajas, none of the stolen bases resulted in a run. Nyjer Morgan was two-for-two in stolen bases, but scored no runs on the night. Adam Kennedy was one-for-one on the paths but scored his only run on his own solo homer, and Ivan Rodriguez, despite hitting 4-4 on the night with one steal, scored no runs in the ball game.
This was a perfect example of the Nationals trying to steal too many bases. Old school philosophy believes this is a practice in manufacturing runs, but new school baseball minds insist that the risk isn't worth the reward. Simply put, advancing one base isn't worth the risk of losing a runner on base...in most situations. Last night the risk didn't end up biting the Nationals, but it has several times this year. As you can see, despite stealing five bases it didn't help the club score more runs. While speed is important on the base-paths, the threat of speed alone is just as useful as the bases the Nats are attempting to steal.
With the win the Washington Nationals are now in sole possession of second place in the division, and are two games behind the Philadelphia Phillies. It's a far cry from where the club was last year, but the team continues to prove detractors wrong and win despite negative projections.
According to baseball's pythagorean theorem the Nats are over-performing by 3.3 games. Right now they are averaging 4.16 runs scored to 4.71 runs allowed a game, but do have the second best hitter VORP and the best Defensive Efficiency in the division, according to Baseball Prospectus. The confusing differential in runs scored/runs allowed despite the teams winning record is likely a result of the early blowouts the team suffered by the hands of guys like Jason Marquis, and Garret Mock. Since then the team's pitching has been vastly improved and the Nationals have been winning a lot of one-run games.
However, if the club wants to keep moving up the standings ladder, they are going to have to start scoring more runs. A team can be very good at one-run games, but they cant rely on just getting lucky late in the game and coming out on top. Playoff teams outscore opposing teams, not just outlast them.
Despite the relative closeness of this game, the Nationals were in relative control. After Adam Kennedy his his home run, the closest the Mets ever got was 43.3% after Rod Barajas' 8th inning single.
WPA Most Valuable Hitter: Adam Kennedy .181
WPA Most Valuable Pitcher: Luis Atilano .212
WPA Least Valuable Hitter: Roger Bernadina -.122
WPA Least Valuable Pitcher: Sean Burnett -.079