WASHINGTON (AP) -On paper, the Washington Nationals look even worse than they did at the beginning of the season, when they seemed poised to field one of the worst teams of all time.
Four-fifths of the projected starting rotation is on the disabled list. There isn't a starter with more than three wins. Five pitchers have won a game for the first time in multiple seasons, and two others have won in the majors for the first time ever. The bullpen has blown nine of 21 save opportunities.
On offense, no one is close to having an All-Star season. Rising star Ryan Zimmerman is batting .249. Dmitri Young (.298) is the only regular hitting better than .270. The team has hit only 31 home runs and stolen just 16 bases, ranking near the bottom of the majors in both categories.
And yet, the Nationals are not going to be historically bad, certainly not at this pace. Sure, they met everyone's expectations with a 1-8 start, but since then they've played almost .500 ball. A 7-3 homestand was followed by a 5-2 road trip, capped by the franchise's first series win over St. Louis in eight years this weekend, raising the record to 21-30.
``We're out to prove people wrong,'' said Matt Chico, who is 3-4 despite not having pitched above Double-A before this season. ``They said a lot of things before the season started, and I think that's what we're trying to do, just prove them all wrong.''
Sunday's victory was typical of the smoke-and-mirrors success the team is having under new manager Manny Acta. Ronnie Belliard got a rare start at shortstop and had four hits, including a two-run homer. Ryan Langerhans - batting just .160 - hit his first career grand slam and only the second home run he's ever hit off of a left-handed pitcher.
The victory went to Saul Rivera because Chico was pulled after four scoreless innings following a long rain delay.
The Nationals were batting a meager .227 only 2 1/2 weeks ago. Now they're hitting .240, having averaged more than seven runs per game on the road trip.
``Everything is clicking right now,'' said Acta, who has remained defiantly upbeat, even during the miserable first week of the season. ``They're playing the roles we want them to play. Hopefully we can get back some of those guys from the DL and - hey, it's early. From Day 1, I don't care what anybody else said or predicted, I want to play over .500. If I don't do it, then let me know in September.''
The Nationals have no delusions of playoff runs - at least not yet - but they're no longer the worst the majors has to offer. They've passed Kansas City, Cincinnati and Texas and hope to chase down a few more when they begin a nine-game homestand Tuesday with three games against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
If this sounds a little bit familiar, it is. Two years ago, the Nationals spent much of the first half of the season in first place with a roster that seemed to have no business winning game after game. The collapse was almost inevitable, and eventually Washington finished last.
How long can this group keep it up? Well, eventually the pitchers on the DL should return, and the bats are starting to produce.
Then again, they can't count on winning many more games with grand slams from players like Langerhans.
``We never gave up on ourselves,'' Young said. ``Manny said there would be times when we'd play well and things wouldn't go our way, and there would be times when the stretch we've been on was going to happen. We never got too high, we never got too low, especially when we started out 1-8. That's a testament to our manager believing in us and letting us go out there every day and play.''
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