Bring back a healthy Stephen Strasburg, add all-star southpaw Gio Gonzalez, then call up breakneck Bryce Harper, all of them big talents but with personalities so different they triangulate the possibilities of locker-room temperament. Mix a stoic perfectionist, a grin-on-the-mound extrovert and a teenage demiurge in the Nats’ clubhouse and what do you get?
Are they combustible or compatible, contentious or complimentary?
This trio will play together through 2016, at least. With Harper’s arrival just six weeks old, how have the Nats coped with such a stirring and shaking of their clubhouse culture? Not much hinges on it: only the franchise future.
Perhaps one incident captures the current tone. After Harper smashed his bat in anger last month, cutting himself above his eye when the bat recoiled, he got 10 stitches. When he and Rick Ankiel were in the outfield minutes later, the dazed Harper asked the vet, “Does it look okay? Am I still bleeding?”
“Oh, you’re good to go,” Ankiel lied, straight-faced.
So, now the sports world has a classic photo of Harper with a six-inch stream of blood running down the side of his face, a picture that will follow him, and maybe define, in an odd but flattering way, his style at 19.
“Yeah, that story’s right,” Harper said Thursday. “Awesome guys. I’ve really been lucky.” And he meant it.
In the annals of baseball unhappiness, the Nats are useless to us now. Give them time. Maybe they’ll learn to bicker. For now, the first-place Nats look at Strasburg’s icy mound demeanor, Harper’s fiery, sometimes comic hustle and Gonzalez’s hat-cocked house party on the mound and think this is just what they needed to turn an average team with a strong clubhouse into a team that, past the one-third mark of their season, is still on a 94-win pace.
Gonzalez has spliced humor and laughter between the sober Strasburg and serious Jordan Zimmermann. He fits between them in their 1-2-3 rotation slots and on the top step of the dugout during games where they and Edwin Jackson are inseparable. Zimmermann and Strasburg often look like they could use cheering up and that’s pretty much Gio’s purpose in life.
“You’d have to be some kind of really miserable person to resent Gio and think, ‘Why is he so happy all the time,’ ” Ankiel said. “Harper brings that big, young energy. And he brings it every day. He’s fun to watch.
“With Strasburg, you understand the frustrations of the game. You see his talent and just want it to express itself,” said Ankiel, who was once one of the game’s most dazzling young pitchers and knows whereof he speaks.
Sometimes stars invade each other’s space and steal what the others need to thrive. But Strasburg provides the oak-tree ace in whose shadow Gonzalez can flourish. “I just want to pick Stras up after his start so he doesn’t feel like the whole weight is on him,” Gonzalez said.
Zimmermann’s ego is so contained he just enjoys blending. “When you line ’em up there’s no jealousy or envy,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “From the first day everybody was comfortable with where they are.
“This team has a lot of confidence, but not a lot of ego. It’s a real good clubhouse. Without that, you got nothing.”
The major surprise for the Nats, which began in spring training but became clear in the last six weeks, is that Harper has matured so much in less than 18 months that he fits in the midst of a simpatico team. Plenty of vets might have doubted that in Viera in ’11. None seem to now.
“When the players with big talent are also real good people, it becomes very easy to fit in,” said veteran Adam LaRoche, the son of a big leaguer. “It’s usually the showtime people who are the problem in the clubhouse. They give off a whole other vibe off the field, like they want everybody on their own team to know how good they are.
“The great ones let their play speak for them. Those three are team guys, humble good guys — the kind that are really good for the clubhouse.”
“Harper listens, wants to learn. He knows he’s good but he keeps it inside. He has that internal cockiness,” said LaRoche, then shaking his head. “He’s 19. It’s hard to imagine.”
Luckily he enjoys absorbing rookie punishment. After a homer, Harper broke up laughing as Strasburg walked past, needling. “Because he works so hard and he’s so quiet, people don’t know he can be funny,” Harper said.
“Come on, Strasburg has no personality,” one Nats vet said. “He’s like me, boring,” Ryan Zimmerman says. And they’re off again, no one safe.
Perhaps what’s surprised the Nats most is an overarching similarity in competitive ferocity that links Strasburg and Harper.
“Players sometimes have an ‘interview personality,’ ” Zimmerman said. “What the public sees isn’t what we see in here. [Strasburg and Harper] are very similar. There are other athletes as talented as they are, but they are so driven. They have the same work ethic, the same high baseball IQ.
“For a 19-year-old, Harper’s got a remarkable ability to learn quickly and be criticized by coaches and other players,” said Zimmerman. He andJayson Werth, Mark DeRosa, LaRoche and Ankiel sometimes seem like a school of tutors for Harper, keeping an eye out for him or on him.
“Harper has guys who care about him, maybe even protect him,” Gonzalez said. “Those guys see that shining star and want him to stay that way.”
When the late innings approach and, five batters early, Harper seeks out LaRoche or Ankiel for a scouting report on relievers he might face, the Nats take note. “Strasburg and Harper both want to be the best that there is,” Ankiel said. “They don’t just want to show up and have a talent. When you get special talent plus special work, that’s when special gets really special.”
The Nats still lack health and hitting. But after a third of their season, they’re still in first place. A big reason for their resiliency so far, and their potential in the future, is that hard-to-define thing in team sports called “a good room.”
“We just don’t have any problems now,” said Zimmerman, who’s seen cliquish Nat teams, disrespected managers and flammable-to-felonious teammates, including one nicknamed “tri-polar.”
“Everyone in here kind of gets it,” Zimmerman said. “Either they have been places where teams knew how to win and how to act or they were already here, like me, and now we’re even happier that we are winning.”
Most teams aren’t this way. But many contenders are. Once in place, team chemistry can be perpetuated. However, it’s strongest when built around core stars. In the last nine months, three of the most gifted pieces of the Nationals puzzle have been put in place. So far, they fit — together.
For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/boswell.