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.
The New York Yankees have had so many illustrious players, they built Monument Park at Yankee Stadium to honor them.
Someday, the Nationals hope to construct statues of their own. The path to the drawing board begins with sustained excellence on the field.
Not too long ago, only die-hard baseball fans regularly attended Nationals games. Other than showing up for marquee opponents or “event” happenings such as opening day, there hasn’t been much reason to visit 1500 South Capitol St. SE (or previously RFK Stadium).
Sure, in their first season here, the Nationals led the NL East at the all-star break (50-31). They stirred buzz by exceeding expectations, but reality set in the second half of the season: Washington finished in last place at 81-81.
Now, it’s no longer an oddity when the Nationals win. It’s becoming expected. Even with an offense that’s about as effective as the Secret Service is at contributing to foreign economies, the Nationals are in first place in the National League East. (Yes, we know it’s just the first week of May.)
With franchise player Ryan Zimmerman expected back from the disabled list next week and superstar-in-training Bryce Harper appearing very comfortable after making his major-league debut last week, the Nationals’ offense at least possesses the potential for improvement.
If the hyped-for-years Harper is rattled by the stage, he hasn’t shown it. His performance in Los Angeles last weekend screamed, “I’m here!”
Despite going hitless in his first game at Nats Park, Harper had another signature throw Tuesday. On Wednesday, Harper went 3 for 4, including two doubles that missed being home runs by inches, with a run batted in to help the Nationals end a losing streak at five games.
“You’ve got power pitchers that don’t automatically open him up with fastballs,” Rizzo said. “They pitch him like he’s an impact player — because he is an impact player.”
The Nationals need many to get where they’re trying to go. We’re about to find out how far along they already are.
For Jason Reid’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/reid