In the last five weeks, that potential has started turning into reality. As the Nats played 35 games in 34 days and won 24 of them to get on pace for 100 wins, they’ve changed the basic reality of where they stand in baseball.
At the trade deadline, the Phillies and Marlins quit on 2012, dealt away stars for prospects and, in doing so, made themselves less appealing destinations for future free agents. They acted like teams that, in their closed-door heart of hearts, know the next couple of years in the NL East belong to the Nats and Braves. The Madoff-ed Mets, buried under bad contracts, are worse off.
In public, the Phils and Fish will talk bravely. But only actions speak. You can’t untrade Hanley Ramirez, Omar Infante, Anibal Sanchez, Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino, Joe Blanton and others. You can chat up your chances to sign Michael Bourn, but unless you vastly overpay like the Nats did for Jayson Werth, he’s not coming. He sees the standings. The Mets are dying to dump Johan Santana’s and Jason Bay’s contracts. No takers. If all this gives you whiplash, join the club. The Nats are now among the “Haves.”
Maybe things won’t work out as Johnson expects. But his mischievous expression at the road trip’s end seemed to say, “I know something you don’t know.” Maybe it’s that, of the Nats’ last 44 games, 27 are at home and 28 against teams that are at least six games under .500.
Maybe having Thursday off, plus four more days off on tap, ensures that the Nats will have proper stretch-run relief. The dog days and short-handed months may be ending. Key stars such as Michael Morse, Ian Desmond (due back Friday), Werth, Drew Storen and Ryan Zimmerman have had so much rest the Nats have one of baseball’s freshest everyday lineups.
Maybe it’s pondering all the young arms and bats that’ll be called up on Sept. 1. Johnson loves a deep bench. His will soon be bottomless. He even hinted Anthony Rendon might arrive: “That stroke will hunt,” Johnson said.
The Nats as a group are now dogs that will hunt.
All five of their starters are in the top 13 in the National League in average fastball velocity. Rookies flourish. When Desmond was hurt for 25 games, rookie Steve Lombardozzi played every day, hit .308 and duplicated his 2011 statistical “slash line” from the minors.
The team’s hidden improvement is its defense on batted balls. Three years ago, the Nats were, by miles, the worst — with the most errors (143) and unearned runs (83) in baseball combined with the third-worst defensive efficiency rating in the National League. (That’s the ratio of defensive outs to defensive opportunities.) They got to nothing; dropped it if they did. This year, they’re on pace for only 93 errors, 41 unearned runs and are No. 1 in baseball in defensive efficiency (range). They get to everything; miss little.
Baseball seldom lets “giddy” last for long. Sooner or later, the Nats are headed toward heights where first-timers, and even vets, sometimes can’t get their breath. “Remember to breathe” is not a late-season joke but a basic tip.
For now, it’s still only August, so just open your lungs and gulp it all in. The baseball air in Washington is the freshest and sweetest in 79 years.
For previous Thomas Boswell columns go to washingtonpost.com/