“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.