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Nationals off to a fast start — and they will need it

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Wilson Ramos sat, motionless on his seat, with his head in his locker so no one could see his face. It was a half hour after he’d made the final out of an 8-5 Nationals loss to the Reds in 11 innings. A Ramos smash that looked like a two-run hit that would bring the winning run to the plate had been snagged by a diving Joey Votto. Suddenly, Ramos flicked out his foot and kicked the black bat on the floor in front of him. Then, he went back to the stare. A beat reporter asked, “Got a second, Wilson?” No, just the stare.

The scene was familiar to those who have spent time in the Nats’ locker room in recent years. It’s the mood of frustration, of enough-is-enough, that accompanies a long losing streak. What’s different is that the Nats had just had a five-game winning streak snapped and were still in first place at 7-3.

“There’s a little more expectation, a little more swagger in here than their used to be,” said Craig Stammen, who won in relief Thursday and Friday, then pitched two more scoreless innings on Sunday, giving him nine strikeouts in four scoreless innings against the Reds. “Actually, a lot more.”

The Nats fell behind 4-0 in the first inning Sunday because umps blew three calls that, replays showed, should each have ended the inning. Then, Ryan Ludwick hit a grand slam. For years, that’s the point when the Nats rolled over. Instead, starting pitcher Ross Detwiler lasted five innings to save the bullpen. The Nats tied the score, had chances to win, but lost.

“This is a different group. We expect to win,” said Ryan Zimmerman. “I’ve been the worst one out of everyone in this room [with a .179 average]. It’s early. There’s tons of work to do. But the culture change around here is not a fluke. If we stay healthy, this is a very good team. We can win a lot of ways.

“And when we get [Michael] Morse and [Drew] Storen back [in midseason], it’ll be like making two trades, but not giving up anybody.”

Health is a mighty big “if.” Tyler Clippard already has some shoulder discomfort, though he claims it’s “normal” for him in spring.

So, there are the two sides of the Nats. They don’t just think they belong in playoff contention; they are comfortable sitting in first place. On the other hand, their depth, much improved, still may not suffice until July.

That’s why their intensity now, even though it’s only April, is crucial. The value of a fast start is one of the most overlooked cornerstones of baseball. Obviously, no one knows how to produce an early season blitz on command — like 15-8, 19-8, 20-4, 21-7, 15-6, 11-2, 11-3, 11-6 or even 7-3 — so nobody likes to admit its importance. Why discuss something that’s random chance that nobody can control?

But what if somebody actually does have that knack? The Nats’ Davey Johnson has, in the 14 seasons when he was manager on opening day, produced all of those “fast starts” cited above, as well as other acceptable starts like 20-14 and 14-10, without ever having any team suffer from a significantly bad beginning to its season.

Davey has no explanation, though he has many ideas. “I know one thing: You don’t get off to a fast start by overusing your pitchers,” he said. “Just the opposite.” As for the rest, it’s vague. Have fun in spring training. Hit the season happy, not tired. Build up “respect and trust” with players and vice versa. Make sure all 25 men know their roles and why they’re in them.

Even if he doesn’t have a formula, Johnson certainly knows the impact of those hot starts. Three teams that were losers when he inherited them jumped to first place or wild-card spots in his first full season after utilizing the catapult of a breakneck spring. If his teams have a trademark, it’s the April-May Shock when his preseason confidence in his team rubs off and his players feed on that early success for months.

The Nats may stumble, despite the best start by a Washington team since 1951. But fans should also be aware of the opposite possibility; the Nats’ 1.99 team ERA is the kind of core strength that generates winning streaks. Every facet of a team doesn’t have to work simultaneously to get to 10 games over .500, the kind of cushion that softens blows for months.

This is what opportunity looks like: The 106-loss Astros come to D.C. for four games with the Strasburg-Gonzalez-Zimmermann rotation primed to greet them. Next come the Marlins, also in some disarray.

The Nats, meanwhile, are in the opposite of disarray: They’re in working order. “Spring training was more relaxed with Davey. He wasn’t forcing our hand and overworking us,” Clippard said. “We’ve come in with a good mind-set and good spirits.”

“Some of us have never had a manager who treats us like big leaguers. He has the track record to do it,” said another Nat, requesting anonymity.

Johnson’s view of spring training is antithetical to the intensity of many managers. “It’s the best time of year for a manager. It’s fun,” he said. “That’s when trust and respect is built up — both ways, player to manager and manager to player. The roles of all 25 men are earned and figured out.

“You can’t be a one-way manager. Each team has it’s own character; so, identify their style. Your thought process has to parallel the players. They are smart. You can’t underrate or overrate ’em,” added Johnson. “When I got here, I thought we had the talent and makeup to have a good team. I sensed the players felt the same. So I told ’em what they already knew — we can make the playoffs this year. We have that potential. But the pressure is on me because if we don’t do it, I have failed to bring out that talent.”

The value of a 7-3 start is clear on days like Sunday when a tough loss simply means, “We’re still in first place.”

The Nats left their park late and still annoyed: No six-game winning streak this time. Washington has no familiarity with baseball teams that feel such emotions. Johnson does. “Chemistry wins ballgames,” he said. That and having Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann and Jackson all lined up.

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