Washington Nationals’ first step could be taking aim at third place

Thomas Boswell
Columnist September 14, 2011

Who says there is no razor-thin race in baseball this September? The Washington Nationals, who are tied with the Mets and lead Florida by 31 / 2, have a chance to become the first D.C. team to escape the second division since 1946.

In most cities, a fight for third place against two decimated franchises wouldn’t merit much more than a glance. But Washington, where baseball is still more novelty than necessity, isn’t most cities. And the Nationals, caught between fancy dreams for the future but 110 years of Washington baseball failure, aren’t a team with fan goodwill to squander.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

The Nats like to think and talk big about their future; indeed, it might actually be bright with a blow-up-the-slots draft class added to the 2010 Bryce Harper bunch. Another wave of interesting September call-ups, including Brad Peacock, Tom Milone, Chris Marrero and Steve Lombardozzi, has been added to Stephen Strasburg, Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos. By next opening day, the Nats may be Jayson Werth and the Homegrowns.

But how about doing some winning right now? Just a little, no heavy lifting required, as a prelude, a bit of practice and just for the radical novelty of the thing? Manager Davey Johnson says, “Getting young players established and winning can go together.” So, let’s see two weeks of it.

This won’t be easy. The Nats still face four games in Philly, three with Atlanta and six against their nemesis since the day they got to D.C.: the low-budget Marlins, who annually drub the Nats with five good young kids and 20 guys nobody ever heard of.

But both New York and Florida face slightly tougher schedules than the Nats. And they’ll do it with depleted rosters. Josh Johnson Hanley Ramirez

Expectation, and pressure that comes with it, is a good thing in proper dosages. The Redskins annually suffer from unrealistic demands (after July title celebrations). The Nats are the exact opposite. Their futility — even in 2005, when they finished 81-81, they finished last in the N.L. East — has a compounding effect. Losing feels normal; “we’re not awful” seems almost good.

When a devoid-of-talent team, like ’07, finishes fourth, give ’em a parade. But for pros with talent at the Nats’ current level — top 10 in baseball in ERA (3.72), above average in fielding percentage and tied with the Phillies in home runs — last place should be excruciatingly unacceptable.

And all those young Nats dressed and body-painted like Smurfs on the trip to New York? They’re not an excuse. In fact, the hazed are a boon.

The Nats are one of the rare teams that should play better with an expanded roster. Often, all those new faces are clutter. But Pudge Rodriguez, Roger Bernadina or Lombardozzi, who already has had a game-winning hit, can be situational game-changers. Putting Marrero, hitting .306, at first base for a month provides the two “hairy-chested” bats that Johnson requested beside him on the bench in Laynce Nix and Jonny Gomes.

The bullpen that’s had trouble covering enough innings to suit Johnson has now added Craig Stammen and Doug Slaten, as well as rookie lefty Atahualpa Severino, who throws 95 mph. In Tuesday’s win over the Mets, Johnson matched up with six relievers yet rested Henry Rodriguez and Tyler Clippard. You need southpaws to play the Phils and Braves. The Nats now carry seven. Some teams call on kids and close their eyes. Johnson has 15 real pitchers who, at the very least, have game situations that actually suit them.

So far, using Peacock and Milone in a six-man rotation is no downgrade. One has the stuff to succeed; the other, the command and poise. We’ll see if each has enough of what the other already has. Oh, Strasburg helps, too.

When Peacock sat at 94-95 mph in his debut and touched 96, Ryan Zimmerman said: “He threw 96. Good. But everybody we brought in threw almost as fast as Strasburg. It’s nice to finally be on the other side of that.”

These aren’t the ’08-’09 Nationals anymore.

And that’s why they should be fighting to finish third — now. When free agents pick where to sign, they shouldn’t think the team’s full name is the No-Chance Nats or that the owners are the Last-Place Lerners.

For the Nats, the test already started with their four-game trip to visit the Mets. The trip has produced three narrow wins so far, including Peacock’s 2-0 win with five shutout innings on Wednesday.

The Nationals won’t leave New York more than a game out of third. Nobody on earth thinks the Nats and Mets are playing any “must” games this week. But why not pretend? Third place is probably as realistic and demanding a late-season challenge this year as winning a wild-card spot may be in ’13 or ’14.

Every division has its pecking order. Right now, the Phils are the cock of every walk, and the Braves, slipping lately, are still far ahead of the Nats. You have to take one step at a time. For example, step on the neck of the Marlins. They won’t like it. So what? Everybody has to learn to lose; the Nats already have their PhDs. Stomp on the fingers of the sufferin’ Mets. See how they like it for a change.

Ask anybody; they’ll tell you. The Nationals aren’t in any race of any kind. It’s just the last two weeks of September, bunch of rooks on the bench.

It doesn’t mean anything. Unless they decide it means a lot to them.

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