Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Adam Dunn hit his 34th homer of the season during today's win.
Stat geeks, fans and media members alike put great stock in these numbers. We use them to form opinions and make evaluations of teams and players. But we often forget one simple fact about all these numbers: Players rarely pay attention to them.
Adam Dunn had no idea he hit his 350th career home run today in the Nationals' 8-1 thumping of the Pirates. Jason Marquis has no idea what his ERA stands at after six solid innings this afternoon (it's at 7.14, down more than 13 points since he returned from the disabled list). Ian Desmond doesn't know that he's hitting .386 since moving up to the No. 2 spot in the daily lineup.
And most certainly, no one around the Nats' clubhouse stopped today to note that with 59 wins, they've now matched their entire season totals from both 2008 and 2009.
These simply aren't the kind of things ballplayers spend much time contemplating in the middle of a long season. During his three months on the DL following surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow, Marquis was aware his ERA stood at a pathetic 20.52. But didn't obsess over it, knowing that wouldn't do him any good.
"I discussed it at length with a few people that are close to me," he said. "That didn't reflect the pitcher of who I was, because I was hurt. If I was feeling good and thought I was making pitches and I had that ERA, then it gives me something to think about. But that wasn't Jason Marquis. I mean, it was Jason Marquis, but pitching hurt, trying to battle through it."
It took a couple of starts back to get his feet wet, but Marquis has rediscovered his form. Counting today's outing, he's now posted a 2.25 ERA over his last four starts.
"It was tough for him early," Jim Riggleman said. "I know he wasn't satisfied, and everyone was concerned about his results. Ever since he got his arm straightened out and been able to go out there on a regular routine, he's been much better. ... This is the guy we thought we were going to get."
Marquis should get four or five more starts to close out the season and bring his overall numbers even closer to respectability. But whether he finishes with three wins or five wins, whether his ERA winds up in the 5.00s or the 7.00s, his biggest concern is leaving the Nationals confident they can count on him to be a stabilizing force in 2011.
"I don't know how many starts I have left," Marquis said. "But whatever it is, when I take the ball I'll be ready to give my team the best opportunity to win and go into the offseason feeling confident and knowing I got through an injury on the positive side."
Dunn's season-ending numbers will carry more significance, if for no other reason than how they might impact his contract negotiations. The reigning NL home run champion surely is going to command more than the second-place finisher.
So it does matter to plenty that Dunn today clubbed his 34th homer of the season. The big guy, of course, has no clue where that leaves him among league leaders.
"I'm sure I'm ... top five, maybe?" he said.
Uh, try top two, Adam. You're only one homer behind Albert Pujols for the NL lead.
For all his prodigious power, Dunn has never won a league home run title. He's finished second twice before (in 2004 and 2008) but has never finished on top. Not that he's trying to do it.
"I wouldn't aspire to do it, but if it works out that way, it would be pretty cool," he said. "If it doesn't, I mean, that's not a goal that I set out for at the beginning of the year. If that happens, it will be cool. But if it doesn't, I won't go home and cry about it."
So, you aren't one of those guys who checks boxscores every day?
"I don't check boxscores," he said. "Well, I do now. It's football season."
Like his teammate at first base, Desmond doesn't pay any attention to boxscores, either. He doesn't know on any given day where his batting average stands.
We'll take care of that for him. On July 27, Desmond's batting average stood at .247. After today's 2-for-3 showing, it stands at .289.
That's a 42 point improvement in less than six weeks for a guy who plays every day.
"To be honest, I've been approaching the game the same exact way since April," Desmond said. "I'm just hitting now. There's not really a rhyme or reason. You work all year to get to a spot. It just took me until July to get there, unfortunately."
There is one overriding factor, however, that may explain Desmond's upswing more than anything else: He's finally escaped the 8-hole where he hit most of the season's first half. Since becoming Riggleman's regular No. 2 hitter on August 6, he's batting .386.
Desmond admits he feels less pressure when hitting at the top of the lineup. In the 8-hole, he's probably only getting three plate appearances per game. Not a lot of opportunity to make adjustments as the evening plays out. And, of course, it's never easy batting in front of the pitcher, especially for a rookie.
As a No. 2 hitter, Desmond can rest easy knowing he'll get four or five plate appearances each game. And with Ryan Zimmerman and Dunn lined up behind him, opponents aren't going to pitch around him.
"It just makes me feel like I'm part of the team, I guess," he said. "I feel like at the top of the lineup, I can help Dunn and Zim and Morse and all those guys get RBI. If I'm on base setting the table for them, I'm just trying to help the team. And as a result, I'm getting on base and getting hits and walking more."
All of that, plus plenty of other factors, leave the Nationals heading home for a Labor Day matchup with the Mets at 59-78. They've matched their win total from each of the last two seasons, and while no team should ever be excited to win its 59th game, this does represent another sign of progress for a franchise that desperately wants its on-field results to start looking better.
By the end of this season, the Nats will be able to say they've made actual progress in the standings. If they go 11-14 the rest of the way, they'll finish at 70-92 (an 11-game improvement). If they go 16-9, they'd finish at 75-87 (a major leap forward, however unlikely).
Of course, the players inside that clubhouse won't be paying a lot of attention to the standings on a daily basis, making a concerted effort to reach any given number of wins. They've been pretty good all season at focusing on the task at hand on that given day, nothing else.
They'll leave the stat-collecting and analyzing to the rest of us.