Washington Nationals face off with the New York Yankees, their measuring stick

Jason Reid
Columnist June 15, 2012

There’s no denying that the Washington Nationals are making image-changing progress. Their improvement since last season is as evident as Tyler Clippard’s effectiveness in any bullpen role.

During their current flame-hot stretch, the Nationals have not only become one of Major League Baseball’s most compelling stories, they’ve also climbed among the game’s best ballclubs. And for the team, that’s not close to being good enough.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

After taking a bat to their former laughingstock label, the Nationals strive to chase down history. They can reach out and touch their target: The New York Yankees.

Friday’s interleague series opener between the streaking teams provided Nationals players with an up-close reminder of management’s top-of-the-list goal. Winning today is now expected; winning forever is what’s wanted.

Straight-talking General Manager Mike Rizzo has made it clear: The next step is for the Nationals to become consistently good. But it’s a small one along a road to potentially becoming great.

The Yankees routed the Nationals, 7-2, to extend their winning streak to seven games and end the Nationals’ at six. The matchup, however, is not a referendum on the Nationals’ standing. In fact, the only series between the teams that truly matters would have “World” in front of it.

“It’s not a secret: Ownership is on board with building a franchise that has long, long-term success here in D.C.,” Clippard, the do-it-all reliever, said before Friday’s game. It’s definitely the right way to think. ”

Most organizations have similar championship aspirations. In the abstract, it’s easy to want to emulate the Yankees.

But actually approaching their record-setting success is even tougher than hitting a Stephen Strasburg fastball. Many are still trying. No team has found the formula. The Yankees have 27 World Series titles. They’ve lost more World Series (13) than the St. Louis Cardinals, who rank second with 11 championships, have won.

The perception is the Yankees have merely outspent the competition. Although it’s true their annual league-high payroll exceeds the operating budget of some municipalities, the Yankees also have had many tremendous home-grown players. To suggest otherwise is simply false.

They’ve had so many iconic players throughout their history that they’re still filling Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park. The Nationals are as much a finished product as a half-baked cake.

It seems, though, they’re in position to keep rising – if their second-to-none pitching holds up and their farm system produces as envisioned – to at least pull closer to the Yankees. To hear Rizzo tell it, he won’t be satisfied until they’re pushed aside.

“They’re the dynasty, and we respect the pinstripes tremendously,” Rizzo said. “They’re at where we want to be and right now they’re in the way, so we’re trying to get them out of the way.”

With emerging superstars Strasburg and 19-year-old Bryce Harper, the club has two players with foundation-laying ability. On their shoulders, the Nationals could enjoy a decade-or-so run of challenging for a pennant.There’s no way of knowing whether Strasburg and Harper will continue to climb so well. It’s just that they have the look of difference-makers on a historic level.

It’s natural to wonder how good the Nationals could become with the duo leading them for years, “and we feel like we should be excited about not only right now, but also the future,” Rizzo said. “Our young guys play 100 mph with their hair on fire. Sometimes they make some mistakes — but they play the right way.”

With the Yankees, it’s not only about winning. It’s about doing it with uncommon flair and class. Shortstop Derek Jeter embodies all the Yankees have stood for during their incomparable dominance. The future Hall of Famer is impressed that the Nationals “are doing very, very well,” he said Friday.

But how successful an organization becomes depends on the players, and the best in any clubhouse “have to keep priorities straight,” Jeter said. “You have to know what you need to do to do your job. You have to understand the sacrifices you have to make for the team to win. A lot of teams have talent, but that’s all of what goes into really winning and trying to win year after year.”

The Nationals used to have a loser’s mentality. Very recently, not enough of their players followed the all-in approach by which Jeter and other Yankees have lived.

“We were used to losing,” Rizzo said. “We were comfortable with losing. We had to get out of that mind-set where the first thing that went wrong . . . we crumbled.”

That’s behind them now. Under Rizzo, the Nationals have improved the roster by every means possible (the amateur draft, free agency and trades) and expect to win now. “We look for reasons why we didn’t [win] instead of excuses why we didn’t,” Rizzo said.

That’s a winner’s approach. Rizzo and Manager Davey Johnson won’t tolerate any other kind.

Apparently, the change has been apparent to fans as well: The Nationals’ attendance has increased about 30 percent this season. If the District truly becomes a baseball town, the Lerner family should be further motivated to support Rizzo’s vision with their bank account.

Rizzo intends to do his part to continue the momentum. After his aggressive decisions to trade for starter Gio Gonzalez and promoting Harper to the big leagues this season, players expect it. “From the moves he makes, you can see where he wants us to go,” Clippard said.

The likelihood is, the Nationals will never make it to the Yankees’ level. But the good news for their fans is that they now seem determined to keep trying.

For previous Jason Reid columns, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.

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