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For Washington Nationals and their fans, the dog days are over

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By the time the Nationals finished batting practice and retreated into their air-conditioned clubhouse on Thursday, the temperature on South Capitol Street had fallen from 102 degrees to a discomfort index of “feels like” 99.

When a team is near last place, as the Nats have often been, this is the point in the season, with summer in full, searing sway and almost 100 games still left on the schedule, when nothing matters much any more. The capacity for denial has died. The team stinks. Fans and players glance at the out-of-town scoreboard. That’s where the games that truly matter are being played before big crowds between teams that, at the drop of a pine-tar-cheating accusation, are at each other’s throats.

For generations, that sweltering summer happiness — the hot, competitive kind — was always somewhere else. Now, it’s here.

Now, it’s the Nats who want to go to Baltimore this weekend with the Orioles in a three-game losing streak and send them onto the skids.

“They beat us here two of three [in May]. I’d like to return the favor,” Manager Davey Johnson said. Asked if he’d ever set foot back inside Camden Yards in 15 years since Peter Angelos fired him, he said, “Time flies.” Then Johnson paused to think. He’d obviously never gone back. His temperate words in the years since have been baseball politics. “I went to the reunion of the ’70 [title] team,” he said. “Did we stay for the game?”

So, he’s been back, but not really. This’ll be the first time, and as manager of the team Angelos tried to keep out of “Oriole territory.” Little payback?

Baseball is meant for summer, for heat, beer in the stands and tempers that get short in a hurry. It’s meant for fusses and rivalries, for Joe Maddon to call Johnson “cowardly” and his Nats players “rats” for finking on the Rays’ Joel Peralta on Tuesday night. On Thursday, “Peraltar” was officially notified he’d be suspended for eight games for all the pine tar umps found in his glove after Johnson, on tips from some Nats, asked for a frisk.

Maddon’s words for Johnson were mildly unprintable. Davey shrugged it off (“check the rulebook”) but termed Maddon “kind of a weird wuss.”

Bad teams, and second-tier managers, don’t ask for pitcher frisks or spend 48 hours sparring in the press. But managers who’ve ridden teams to the World Series, like Maddon and Johnson, take pains not to be one-upped.

Who won the manager throwdown? Oh, this one was a clean knockout.

The Rays delayed Peralta’s suspension with an appeal. Real reason: to face the Nats again in the rubber game of this series. The teams won’t play again for years. Maddon called Peralta in start the sixth of a 2-2 game. With two outs and a man on second, he had Peralta intentionally walk pinch hitter Adam LaRoche to get to Danny Espinosa, batting lefty, his weaker side. Maddon, sarcastically called “the guru” by Johnson, watched as Espinosa ripped a game-winning two-run double into the right field corner.

Maddon even gets credit for putting the Nats’ insurance run on base for free.

Davey owes Danny a steak dinner.

In towns with bad teams, fans may still love the sport, especially its capacity for surprise, even in the 1000th game you’ve seen. But they wish they could taste the real thing. In D.C., the wait has been so long that the question has arisen: “What is the real thing? Would we know it if it arrived?”

You know it’s real when it’s 97 degrees at game time and a third straight big weekday crowd (29,551) shows up — nearly 85,000 for three dates with the high-talent low-draw Rays. When you’re in last place in mid-June, nothing matters. But in first place, everything matters.

Last week, the Nats swept two “big” series in Boston and Toronto to rocket higher in the national sports consciousness. Then they came home and were swept in a “big” weekend series against the Yankees as 124,000 fans watched. Then suddenly this Rays series became “big” because of the Maddon-Johnson spat. Next up, the “big” Nats-Orioles series.

Of course, seen from enough distance, these series aren’t that “big.” But a baseball season, once it trammels you up with its momentum and its unspooling narrative — Bryce Harper, at 19, may soon be the Nats’ best player — creates a sense that the long-term future constantly hangs in the balance of the near-term present.

When the late Edward Bennett Williams, former president of the Redskins, became owner of the Orioles, he was shocked that his busy life of law, politics and power brokering was deeply unsettled by the fluctuations of baseball team. “We play every day,” he said, “and I can’t stop watching.”

Fans take a different kind of ownership in a contending baseball team. But they seldom know its full impact until they’re caught up in it.

And it’s not just the details of their team’s players and games that matter. It’s the news about rivals that matters almost as much, especially in a division as close in talent as the NL East.

On Wednesday, the Braves’ best pitcher, Brandon Beachy (MLB co-leading 2.00 ERA), was told he needed Tommy John surgery and will be lost for at least a year. The Braves’ Jair Jurrjens had already been sent to Class AAA, where he was ineffective. Now he comes back up. Will the Braves have to trade for a major pitcher before July 31st?

In recent weeks, the Marlins have played so miserably that despite a 33-36 record they have been outscored by 60 runs. The Mets have needed an 11-1 start by knuckleballer R.A. Dickey to lurk 31 / 2 games behind the Nats. How long can they keep that up? And the Phillies, 81 / 2 games back, can’t really be that bad, can they?

Nationals fans, and Washingtonians, have never even had to consider such possibilities before. With reasonable health and the eventual return of Drew Storen, Jayson Werth and others, is it possible that their logical goal for this season ought to be revised to division champion, not “wild card, maybe?”

When such questions change so dramatically, then everything matters. The feeling surprises Nat players, too. “It’s nice to be in the top spot instead of 15 games out,” said Ryan Zimmerman, who’s been through all the worst times. “We still have a lot of room to improve. But we’ve got a good thing going. We have to keep it rolling to make all this stuff matter. Whoever wins this division at the end will be one heck of a team.”

How do you cope with a team on a 97-win pace? How do you place baseball among the habits of your life when, suddenly, everything that effects the team seems far more important than it did as recently as last year.

“All this is new to us,” too,” Zimmerman said. “But it’s a lot of fun.”

For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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