Thomas Boswell
Thomas Boswell
Columnist

Washington Nationals have finally achieved ‘normal’

Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press - In right-hander Jordan Zimmermann, the Nationals have a bona fide ace.

Get used to what you’ve just seen from the Nationals in the first half of their season: 40-41. This is the new normal. That is, until things probably get better. Date, unspecified.

Whatever happened to 2011 as “wait till next year” without Stephen Strasburg and long before Bryce Harper? The script changed. Jordan Zimmermann has become an ace. Rookie Danny Espinosa and Michael Morse could be all-stars. Wilson Ramos is now catcher in perpetuity. Ian Desmond’s error avalanche is over. Lefty John Lannan’s matured. Henry Rodriguez has put a 100-mph heater in a deep bullpen. There’s more. That’s enough.

The Natinals are gone. The Nationals are now roughly a .500 franchise. Not someday but today as they start an 11-game homestand on Friday. Not “with luck” but so far this year with mostly bad luck. Not “when Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth contribute” and Adam LaRoche returns, but right now despite zilch from their projected 3-4-5 hitters.

Basic stats expose flukes. The Nats have outscored foes by four runs in 81 games. That’s validation. Two years ago, they were outscored by 164 runs and allowed 874 runs. Last year, the margins shrank to minus-87 and 742 runs. Now, on pace to allow 628 runs.

General Manager Mike Rizzo made better pitching and defense job one. But that’s almost ridiculous. If the Nats’ pitching backslides in the second half, their hitting from established regulars has been so abysmal thus far that more offense is likely to offset the problem.

“This is the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more coming. For years it’s been ‘be patient, be patient.’ It’s been tough,” Zimmerman said. “That is about over.”

Perhaps it helps perspective that the Nats just got swept by the Angels to end a road trip, including two one-run losses and a gruesome game with five errors. The last thing the Nats need is premature optimism. But .500 isn’t actually optimism at all. It’s the average state of the average team in any pro sport. It’s normal. It’s to be expected.

What’s different is Washington’s unique curse. Back to the ’30s, D.C. baseball and failure have been synonymous. Since ’53, only one team over .500. Within the sport itself (you know, the reality-based universe) that dismal era is generally seen as history. The Nats? Oh, normal talent, record and ballpark with ownership trending toward normal, too.

Once we locals come out of our state of shock, we may enjoy what other cities might call “average.” But around here, this looks like our summer of euphoria for competence.

The obvious parts of the Zimmerman “iceberg” are rookies Espinosa and Ramos, both stellar defenders. That talent never changes. Ramos looks like he’ll hit enough, with increasing power numbers over time. On Espinosa, let’s defer to ex-Long Beach State coach Mike Weathers, who visited three former Dirtbags last fall — Evan Longoria, Troy Tulowitzki and Espinosa. Rate the three, please? Different skill sets, he said, but at comparable stages of their careers, about the same. In a couple of years, could he actually be right?

More important, the Nats finally have a top-tier starter, just like a real team — Zimmermann, 25, with a 2.63 ERA. Look in every category (ERA, WHIP, OPS-against, wins above replacement) and he shows up in the middle of these three names: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. His ERA in his last 11 starts is 1.85. He needed 20 months after his elbow surgery to reach full power. But his stuff and command is better than ever.

The Nats may have a similar right-hander by September or next year. Not Strasburg, but Brad Peacock. Get those plumage headlines ready. In 92 innings at AA Harrisburg, he has a 2.14 ERA, allowed only 57 hits and 21 walks with 120 strikeouts. Zimmermann’s stats there in ’08 were good, but not phenomenal and he was in the Nats rotation in April ’09.

“Spin [Williams] is always raving about Peacock,” Zimmerman said of the Nats’ organizational pitching coach. “They say he throws 92 to 97 tops, but with an even better breaking ball than Zimmermann. I didn’t say that! But he’s doing it with real stuff.”

Peacock, 23, is found money, drafted in the 41st round in ’06. There’s a 41st round? In high school, before a year in junior college, he was too small. Not anymore.

Like most teams (but not the Nats, heretofore), the minors now have too many legit prospects to list in a general column. Low-Class A Hagerstown alone has three pitchers from the ’10 draft with knockout stats as good as Harper, plus a catcher with more RBI than Bryce. Of course, baseball vets know that big inventory is essential because calamity is inevitable. But, with a year or two of growth, the Nats may have normal depth throughout the minors.

In this present moment of semi-.500 hysteria, could a few injuries ruin the Nats’ year? Sure, that’s part of being average. But could enough things fall in place so they make a playoff run? I’ll concede I’ve seen crazier. That’s normal, too. But how novel for D.C.

The next illogical step, of course, is to ask when or if the Nats will move beyond competitive to contending. Just stop. That is as remote and hypothetical as a .500-ish team is realistic and present. Let’s not jinx Strasburg’s recovery with our fake certainty.

As for Harper, he’s still in Hagerstown near July 4. He once thought he’d be there 10 days. That means something’s not perfect. Post-kiss, he’s been out with a bone bruise. “If it was Ryan Zimmerman, he’d be playing. He would be playing if he was a big leaguer,” Rizzo said. “But there is no need for him to be playing uncomfortable.”

Don’t get giddy. Exhale. For example, new Manager Davey Johnson was exceptional because he knew every detail about everybody. After 11 years away, even if he’s been semi-plugged in, he faces an information deficit. That takes time. But every part of the Nats needs time to heal or mature or play together. To fail together, then win together.

That’s how it works. Welcome to the novelty of normal. Some places, it’s boring. Here, generations in coming.

 
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