When the teams meet Friday for the first time this season, the Washington Nationals hope to establish new house rules. The Nationals believe they’ve closed the gap between themselves and the five-time defending champs of the National League East. In the process, they’ve earned national attention (Sunday’s appearance on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” is the team’s first since Nats Park opened in 2008). Their power-armed pitching staff led by Stephen Strasburg-led rotation is potentially as good as any in baseball, at least when healthy.
Still, the Nationals have to prove they’re getting closer, and against the neighborhood bully, true progress is measured on the scoreboard.
Winning two out of three against the Phillies in early May wouldn’t be parade-worthy stuff. Even sweeping the injury-weakened visitors (superstars Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are sidelined indefinitely and ace left-hander Cliff Lee is on the 15-day disabled list) at this point in the season would be sort of like pouring a cup of water into a bathtub: Much more is needed to get the job done.
But an early “we-punched-the-Phillies-in-the-mouth” showing would validate the Nationals’ confidence.
It’s all about changing the big-picture narrative.
“You know how we stop them [Phillies fans] from taking over the park? You beat them time and time again,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said earlier this week. “They’ll [Phillies fans] get tired of coming here. Just win . . . that’s how we take back the park.”
Baseball’s best franchises aren’t simply defined by the pennants and World Series they’ve won. They’re also distinguished by the feats of the players that led them to success and word-of-mouth excitement that spans generations. If the Nationals are ever going to succeed in their efforts to transform the District into a baseball town, it begins with games such as these.
The Nationals must produce lasting, front-of-the-brain images of their best players delivering clutch hits, having shutdown pitching performances and making “I-can’t-believe-he-did-that” plays in the field against the best competition.
St. Louis is one of the best — some would say it’s second to none — baseball cities. The Cardinals have won a National League-leading 11 World Series titles. The club also has a rich legacy of superstars. There was brash pitcher Dizzy Dean and the hard-charging 1934 “Gashouse Gang.” Stately Stan “The Man” Musial (he’s fourth all-time with 3,630 hits), defensive magician Ozzie “The Wizard of Oz” Smith and Albert Pujols.
Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers fans recall vividly the sight of Jackie Robinson stealing home, Sandy Koufax in the wind-up or Kirk Gibson limping around second base while pumping his arm after hitting one of the most dramatic home runs in World Series history.