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Little Guys, Big Changes: Nats Notch a Sweep

Washington Nationals' Lastings Milledge hits a solo home run against the Cincinnati Reds' during the first inning of a baseball game, Sunday, Aug. 3, 2008, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Washington Nationals' Lastings Milledge hits a solo home run against the Cincinnati Reds' during the first inning of a baseball game, Sunday, Aug. 3, 2008, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass) (Nick Wass - AP)

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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 4, 2008

A fresh set of superlatives overwrote all the familiar ones this weekend, and as a result, the Washington Nationals forgot the lifestyle endemic to baseball's worst team and embraced the joy designated to one of baseball's hottest. The new youngest team in baseball is also the littlest (more on that later), the cleanest, and, at least during the three-game sweep that concluded yesterday, the craftiest.

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Yesterday afternoon's 4-2 victory against the Cincinnati Reds -- Washington's third in a row -- doubled as the final act of a weekend-long reclamation project. A team once found at the butt end of jokes instead started joking around, even about matters of its own size. Against Cincinnati, a summation of little things -- two-out rallies and pick-off plays and diving defense stops -- fed into one general clubhouse sentiment:

Four days ago, before Washington remade its roster, these things wouldn't have happened.

No way would Washington have stockpiled five consecutive hits in the first inning, all after two outs. No way could Washington have perfected a pick-off play to escape a Cincinnati rally in the second. No way could Washington have survived a top of the seventh inning that required a diving snare in left field, a diving swipe at shortstop, and a graceful charge for a rolling grounder at second.

"Psychologically this has to be very good, because we just got swept three series in a row," Manager Manny Acta said. "Getting a sweep is a lot better, because it puts some space in between the days you had that losing streak and tomorrow."

The Nationals' progress since its Thursday night purge of several underachieving veterans registers most forcibly, at least for now, as a cognitive change. The Nationals (41-70) are still a last-place team, embedded. But with their first sweep since June 13-15, they've developed a belief in newness. After yesterday's game, five players were asked if they felt like they were playing on a different team from the one they knew mid-week. All said yes.

"These guys, they're young, they're diving all over the field for you," relief pitcher Steven Shell said.

"It's the energy we have," catcher Wil Nieves said. "Everything is working for us."

"The way things are going," Pete Orr said, "the atmosphere is just different now."

After the game, which included Lastings Milledge's ninth home run, Collin Balester's second win and Joel Hanrahan's first save, Washington's players pointed out their preferred status as baseball's underdog. Pitcher Jason Bergmann guessed that no team in baseball this season has fielded a smaller lineup. Yesterday, the Nationals started with a 5-foot-11 third baseman (Orr), a 5-11 shortstop (Alberto González), a 5-10 second baseman (Emilio Bonifacio), a 6-foot first baseman (Kory Casto), and a 5-9 left fielder (Willie Harris). "The average guy," Bergmann said, pointing at the 5-11 Nieves, another starter, "is his height."

Bergmann paused, examining the premise.

"Well, except Balester."


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