The expansion Nats’ struggles to reach .500

Prior to the sudden improvement under Ted Williams in 1969, the expansion Washington Senators rarely reached the .500 mark beyond the early days of the season. Even the ’69 team struggled to win more games than it lost until a September surge. On July 30, the ’69 Senators’ record stood at 53-54 before finishing at 86-76, the expansion team’s lone winning season.

The ’68 Senators, a team that would finish 10th, teased fans by starting with an 11-7 record by April 30. After four straight losses, that team dropped to 11-11 on May 5. It was all downhill from there. The same was true of the “Off the Floor in ’64” team after it split its first 12 games. Those Nats at least finished, as promised, out of the cellar despite losing 100 times.

When the American League expanded and the original Senators were allowed to move to Minneapolis-St. Paul for 1961, Washington was stuck with an expansion team. General Manager Ed Doherty and Mickey Vernon, who had been named field manager, chose to go mostly with veteran players in the expansion draft.

Their strategy seemed to work well into mid-June. After beating the Orioles, 5-2, in Baltimore on June 15, the expansion Nats stood at a surprising 30-30, tied with the O’s, also 30-30, in fourth place. (The ’61 Nats actually were a game over .500 at 24-23 on June 2 before losing five in a row.)

Unfortunately, or perhaps predictably, the penchant for long losing streaks caught up with the Senators. Washington jumped out to a 6-0 lead the next night, June 16, in Boston before the Red Sox came roaring back to win 14-9. The Sox win, coincidentally, left Boston at 30-30. Saturday was more of the same. The Nats blew a 5-1 lead and lost 6-5.

Still, the team was just two games below .500. The Sunday game, however, has to rank as the worst loss in the history of the expansion team, if not the worst ever for a Washington team, up to this past season. Leading 7-5 into the top of the 9th, Washington scored five times, aided by a Willie Tasby grand slam. Despite giving up five runs, Carl Mathias took the mound for the bottom of the 9th, three outs away from what he hoped would be his first Major League victory.

The inning began with a harmless groundout by Vic Wertz. Don Buddin singled, but Billy Harrell, pinch-hitting for the pitcher, struck out. One out away from a win, the Nats led 12-5 with a runner on first. A single by Chuck Shilling sent Buddin to second.

Carrol Hardy then singled in Buddin, sending Shilling to third. Still, there were two outs and a 12-6 lead. Mathias’ day was done when he walked Gary Geiger to load the bases. Vernon brought in Dave Sisler, who already had seven saves and whose earned run average at that point was 1.67. Perhaps, assuming the Nats had a safe lead, he didn’t have enough time to warm up. In any case, his outing was an utter disaster.

Sisler proceeded to walk Jackie Jensen, forcing in a run, then he walked Frank Malzone, bringing in another run and putting the Sox in slam range at 12-8.

Of course, that’s just what happened. Struggling to throw strikes, Sisler served up a gopher ball to Jim Pagliaroni. The Nats’ 12-5 lead was gone. Mathias, by the way, never did win a Major League game.

The Red Sox, however, were not done, nor was Sisler. He walked Vic Wertz before Vernon replaced him with Marty Kutyna. Buddin greeted Kutyna with another single, moving Wertz to second. Pete Runnels ran for Wertz and Russ Nixon batted for Harrell. Nixon promptly singled to right, scoring Runnels and leaving the Senators stunned losers, 13-12. The Red Sox had scored eight runs with two outs and a man on first.

Washington’s third loss in a row would be followed by seven more. August featured a 14-game losing streak. Between Aug. 18 and Sept. 8, the ’61 Nats dropped 24 of 25 games. A loss to Kansas City on the final day of the season was the Senators’ 100th and left the team in a last-place tie with the A’s in the A.L. basement.

Sadly, this 9th (albeit last) place finish would be as high as the Senators could get until 1965. After three more 100-loss seasons, the team improved to 70-92 for manager Gil Hodges. The 8th-place finish in ’65 was an eight-game improvement over 1964 and four games better than the team’s expected Pythagorean, runs-based, won-loss total.Hodges '67 card

The ’66 finish again was four games better than the Pythagorean expectation. The Senators flirted with .500 that season as late as June 1, when Washington was 22-24. But the Nats dropped 12 of the next 13 games to put an end to that.

Thanks to three games not made up in ‘66, the Nats lost fewer than 90 games for the first time, finishing 71-88. Still, Washington avoided the cellar by just one game. The Red Sox, a team that would reach the ’67 World Series, finished half a game behind the Senators at 72-90 and half a game ahead of the Yankees, who finished 10th at 70-89.

The steady if minimal improvement continued in 1967. Behind a Phil Ortega 3-hitter, the Senators beat the Twins, 5-0, on Aug. 7 to reach .500 at 55-55. The Nats split the next six games.  The 9-7 win over the Twins on Aug. 9, pulling the team back even at 56-56 was a 20-inning affair in which the Nats scored seven runs in the seventh after trailing 7-0. The Senators’ closer Darold Knowles pitched an amazing 10 shutout innings — the 8th through the 18th — before Ken McMullen put the Nats ahead with a solo homer. Frank Howard doubled and scored an insurance run. Dave Baldwin stopped the Twins over the last three innings for his first Major League win.

After shutting out Kansas City, 2-0, on Aug. 13 behind Frank Bertaina, Washington stood at 58-58. That was as good as it got, however, as Washington dropped 10 of the next 12. Still, the 76-85 finish was good enough for a sixth-place tie with Baltimore and was six games better than the Pythagorean won-loss expectation.

The departure of Hodges to the Mets after his apprenticeship in D.C. probably played a part in the Senators falling to the cellar again in ’68, despite the encouraging 11-7 start. The 1969 season would be the one Washington baseball fans would have to savor for more than three decades until the Expos became the Nationals in 2005. Three 100-loss seasons brought back memories of the ‘60s before the new Nats became consistent winners. Let’s hope the success continues.

A version of this appears in the March 2019 Squibber, the quarterly newsletter of the Bob Davids chapter of SABR.

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