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As spring arrives, reality dawns for Nationals

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VIERA, Fla.

Spring training actually starts deep in winter. So, with ice still in command of most big league towns, it’s the duty of every fan to spend the first few silly weeks in a state of fantasy. Every team in Florida or Arizona looks like it is improved by 15 wins, more on days when the sun comes out.

Then suddenly time expires on daydreams. Guess what? The first full day of spring — the real, March 21 variety — just arrived. With only 10 more days left until opening day, everybody must confront reality. For the Nationals that meant facing Detroit’s strikeout king Justin Verlander for six innings on Sunday. “We brought the big boys today,” said Tigers Manager Jim Leyland.

The Nationals aren’t ready for those big boys yet. They enjoy talking about the future, their prodigies like Bryce Harper and who their next Jayson Werth-like signing might be, but the present is still scary. Their spring record, now 10-12 (.455) after a seventh straight defeat, is a good reflection of what their ’11 record might be — something like 74-88. That is if they play well.

It’s often said: “Success is getting what you want; happiness is wanting what you have.” In baseball, everybody spends the spring deciding how much success they require in order to enjoy what they have. For the Nats, that could be a hard task. They’re caught between an abysmal past and a future that could be much brighter. That makes their ambiguous present seem all the more like a purgatory. How long must we wait? A sign, please?

So, even a spring losing streak, with hodgepodge lineups and mass substitutions, feels grating. “It just doesn’t feel good,” said Manager Jim Riggleman after a 6-1 loss to the Tigers. “The players feel like they’re in for fractions of games. So it feels worse for the coaches and me. And [General Manager] Mike Rizzo feels it every day.”

Perhaps a wise outsider can see more clearly. “They’re developing a good everyday lineup. Pretty impressive,” said Leyland, ticking off names like Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche and shortstop Ian Desmond, a favorite of the Tigers. “But I guess it comes down to starting pitching for them.”

For now, it certainly does. And the truth already seems clear on that subject. Lefty Tom Gorzelanny pitched passably on Sunday for the second straight time and that’s enough to keep him penciled into the rotation with Livan Hernandez, Jason Marquis, John Lannan and Jordan Zimmermann.

Perhaps all you need to know about this quintet is that their combined ERA so far this spring is 4.40. That’s not criticism. That’s just who they are, who they’ve always been and who they’ll be — as a group — this year. Except Zimmermann, all are established and have had 200-inning seasons. Their career ERAs are 4.10, 4.39, 4.56, 4.68 and 4.71. Does it even matter which one is which? (Okay, Lannan is best, Zimmermann worst.)

Last year, the ERA of all Nats starters (helped by Stephen Strasburg’s 2.91) was 4.58. That beat only three teams. These Nats may be a bit better because, when injuries arrive, a credible rotation at AAA Syracuse, including Ross Detwiler, should be . . . well . . . functional if perhaps pedestrian.

So, the broad parameters of the season are already set. “It’d be a very good season if we got to .500,” said one regular who didn’t want to be quoted since all players are supposed to act like they’ll win 100. “But we really need to put demands on ourselves to get well up in the 70s.”

This month, two issues have come to the forefront that may impact the season significantly. When camp opened, Riggleman looked at a bullpen that, after the arrival of several new arms, seemed overcrowded.

“We strengthened a strength,” he said, publicly. Then, he added, “Sometimes you have to get better just to stay the same. We had some good years out of people last year. You don’t want to count on that too heavily.”

That already seems wise. Closer-of-the-future Drew Storen and set-up man Tyler Clippard both gave up hard-hit balls on Sunday and now have ERAs of 11.74 and 12.79. Clippard has herky-jerky mechanics, which make him deceptive but also prone to hot-and-cold streaks. The more he pitches, the better he irons out his mechanics. So, the start of the season, and more chances to pitch back-to-back days, usually gets him sorted out.

Storen, academic by nature, was perhaps given too much February coaching on the Theory of How to Use the Fastball. Throw fewer curves, please and be more precise with the fastball. That’s easy to say, hard to do at 23. Paralysis from analysis may have set in. “At least it doesn’t go on the back of my baseball card yet,” said Storen of his bad outings.

Since Storen’s arm is fine and his velocity normal, the Nats should just nudge him back toward what the young pitcher calls his “adrenalin-based approach” to relieving — attack with all his pitches, but don’t be too precise. Golfers understand that one half of the brain is for analyzing the shot before address; the other half of the brain takes over as soon as you put the club behind the ball: just think “target” and rip away.

“I need to stop thinking so much and commit to the pitch,” Storen said. “I’m taking so much time out there, I’m like a human rain delay.”

The Nats’ biggest remaining decision here is who plays center field. Rizzo hoped Nyjer Morgan would reprise his ’09 work and take the job. Though Morgan has improved after a bad start, he doesn’t quite seem like the answer. With no power and little patience at the plate, and a weak throwing arm, too, he needs to have truly superior range in center, an on-base percentage over .350 and a high success rate on steals to be an every day starter. To get him to those levels, the Nats are constantly adjusting his stance or tinkering with him playing a far shallower center field. Those seem like last resorts, not final touches.

So, unless Nyjer gets hot and wins the spot, don’t be surprised to see Morgan in the minors on opening day and the smooth Rick Ankiel in center. He covers enough ground, strikes out a ton but hit 25 homers in ’07 and has what Zimmerman calls “the strongest arm in the game” in center field.

No matter how center field works out, the clumsy handling of the position shows how far the Nats still must travel. Neither Ankiel, nor Morgan nor Roger Bernadina can touch lefties. That means Jerry Hairston, a superior utility man, who’s started less than 100 games in his long career in center, will be platooned in center field almost by default.

On the day pitchers and catchers reported here, hearts fluttered at the sight of Strasburg actually throwing a baseball once more, Harper taking a powerhouse batting practice and a $126-million free agent actually wearing a Nationals uniform.

But as opening day comes into sight, a more complete picture of Nats reality has come into focus. It includes the prospect of Hairston, a center fielder of last resort, starting at the position of DiMaggio, Mays and Josh Hamilton as many as 50 times.

Keep telling yourself, “happiness is wanting what you have.” Funny how that’s always so much easier on the first day of spring training than it is when the countdown to opening day finally arrives.

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