Things Are Suddenly Looking Up for Nationals

Wednesday, March 15, 2006 4:24 PM

Just a dozen days ago, the Nationals hit bottom. That morning, the team learned that cleanup man Jose Guillen might need wrist surgery and could be lost for half the season. This came on the heels of news that Brian Lawrence, supposedly the most dependable addition to a thin pitching rotation, would miss the whole season because of shoulder surgery.

The District and MLB were at the peak of their standoff over a lease for the new Nats ballpark on the Anacostia and many, including me, thought that ill will on both sides might actually lead to the insanity of months of arbitration. Without the prospect of an owner, the Nationals seemed to have little long-term leverage with recalcitrant star Alfonso Soriano. Why would he voluntarily switch to the outfield if Washington wasn't in the financial position to reward him for such a "sacrifice" by offering him the kind of five-year contract for more than $60-million that he could probably get as a free agent after the season?

On that day, Livan Hernandez had not yet pitched an inning in spring training and, according to selected carnival weight-guessers, was 15 pounds above the tonnage that the Nats preferred for him. Also, switch-hitting Jose Vidro, once the finest everyday player in the organization, was a question mark. Was he on the brink of a full recovery from his 2½ seasons of knee misery? At 31, still in his prime, could he resume his career at his previous all-star level? Or would the knee blow when tested?

Since then, so many things have gone right for the Nationals on so many levels that it is actually hard to digest them all. Of Earl Weaver's many quotes, my favorite was always his tart retort, "Everything changes everything." Baseball refuses to remain static. And every significant development has ramifications that ripple toward the horizon.

Perhaps the Nationals' dismal spell was broken last Tuesday afternoon. After 4 ½ innings, a makeshift Washington team, without a half-dozen WBC players, was getting crushed, 20-1, by the Marlins in perhaps the most ridiculous, wind-blown slapstick of errors I've ever seen. "It's been a comedy. And it was already 6-0 when I got here in the first inning," said Michael Higgins, a Nats season ticket holder in the first-base stands.

When the scoreboard line read: "Florida 20-21-0, Washington 0-1-3," a fan yelled, "Don't change the pitcher. Relieve the scoreboard guy. He's exhausted." After a Nats minor-league outfielder missed a bases-loaded flyball because he was startled by Marlin pitchers running sprints on the warning track behind him, the PA announcer incongruously said, "Okay, fans. It's time for the Chicken Dance." As the Nats' pitching coach trudged to the mound, another fan bellowed, "Oh, they got a plan now."

At that very juncture back in the District, Councilman Marion Barry was holding the floor back in debate, trying one last attention-grabbing, beat-the-ballpark tactic.

Maybe, after a half-century in the majors, Manager Frank Robinson just has a sense of karmic confluence. At any rate, he'd seen enough. "Nobody leaves the ballpark," he announced to his players. No cursing, just a few words from the old sheriff. So, nobody could shower and hit the golf course or take the wife to the beach. Instead, everybody has to wait until the last miserable out and listen to whatever a steamed Robinson might say. Would furniture be thrown or players get shipped to the minors?

By coincidence, the Nats began to score, outscoring the Marlins 11-2 thereafter and leaving the bases loaded twice.

Later that afternoon, word arrived at Space Coast Stadium that the Washington ballpark lease was signed, the Nationals would get their new $611 million home and, in quick order, perhaps before Opening Day, an owner would be announced, too.

Now, so much has changed that we have to pinch ourselves. Guillen wasn't seriously injured and may start on Opening Day. Vidro's knee has responded well, so far, to playing almost every day and the Nats may suddenly have a career .300-hitter near the top of their batting order once again. In two starts, Hernandez has allowed one run and no walks in eight innings and, after offseason knee surgery, Robinson claimed that, in his five shutout innings on Tuesday, he could see "the old pop" back on Livan's fastball. If so, Washington is in for a treat. Hernandez's knee throbbed most of '05, his fastball was tepid and the man who had a 3.40 ERA combined in '03-'04 in Montreal never really appeared. In spacious RFK, a healthy Hernandez, still only 31, might have an ERA near 3.00 and win 18 games, something he's never quite done, but which he has the talent to accomplish.

One year ago, Washington was told that its two best ex-Expo players were probably Hernandez and Vidro, though Brian Wilkerson had also been excellent in '04. Last season, those two true stars seldom shown in Washington as they had in Montreal. Hernandez hobbled and battled his way to a 15-10 record, but with a 3.98 ERA. Vidro missed almost half the season, hit .275 and had the worst year of his career by far.

Now, a dozen days after the Nationals prospects, both for this season and for the future, looked obscure and perhaps bleak, everything has started changing everything. With a ballpark lease in hand, the Nats have signed Nick Johnson to a long-term contract. Suddenly, the permutations of the Soriano situation aren't so limited -- unless he simply chooses to be obstinate. Show Alfonso that virtual tour of the new ballpark. Tell him to be patient, wait for the new owner to offer him a bundle of money to remain in Washington for many years and -- by the way -- go play left field like a sensible fellow. That way everybody wins. He can stay in D.C. and be a rich left fielder or he can still go free agent after the season, but with a better resume and reputation.

Plenty can still go wrong in Season II. The health of Hernandez and Vidro seems promising, but not yet fully established. Check back in May. Guillen hasn't proven that he can play a full '06 at the high level he maintained for the first half of '05. Chad Cordero and Gary Majewski, after they return from the star-crossed U.S. team in the WBC, must prove that they can beat that infamous Sophomore Jinx. And third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, whose play makes Robinson sound almost silly with his high spring-training praise, is still just a superb prospect, not a proven commodity.

Still, in the last dozen days, the humpty-dumpty Nationals, who seemed to have fallen and cracked, have suddenly discovered that they are sitting right side up again. Everything has been changing, and changing fast. Hard as it may be to get our minds around in such a hurry, those transformations have been big. And, after months of gloom, they've been very, very good.

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