By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 26, 2010; D05
Rock music blared in the Washington Nationals clubhouse on Sunday afternoon as Scott Olsen leaned against his locker stall. His shrugs and slow cadence belied what he had just done, shutting out the Los Angeles Dodgers, capping his team's best start in a half-decade. "Long season," Olsen said. "Long season. Long season. We've got a long way to go."
With their 1-0 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Nationals polished off a 6-4 homestand, in which seven of the games came against 2009 playoff teams and nearly half of them were played without their best player. The Nationals pushed their record to 10-9 overall despite facing reigning postseason participants in 13 of their first 19 games.
Even if May remains almost a week away, the Nationals have convinced themselves their days as a doormat are done. The rest of the year will determine whether their start is a mirage or a foundation, but the Nationals already have created separation between a dreadful past and a hopeful future.
"All the negative crap is pretty much behind us," first baseman Adam Dunn said. "This team didn't lose 102 games. That was last year. I don't know any guys on this team that don't believe we can do some damage. I don't mean compete. I mean win."
"It means a lot," General Manager Mike Rizzo said. "That's all there is, is to win games. That's what we're about."
Olsen, in front of 18,395 at Nationals Park, created the latest win. Five days after a six-run, two-inning disaster against the Colorado Rockies, Olsen allowed six hits, five of them singles, and one walk in seven scoreless innings. Olsen flummoxed the Dodgers with his sharp curveball, using it for five of his eight strikeouts, and threw 71 of his 99 pitches for strikes.
"He dominated," reliever Tyler Clippard said. "That's what he's capable of. We've all seen it."
Manager Jim Riggleman called it Olsen's best outing as a National. Riggleman left him in one batter longer than he originally planned, and with one out in the seventh Olsen induced a double play from pinch-hitting Andre Ethier. "He just sucked it up and gave it everything he had," Riggleman said. Olsen overpowered the Dodgers, but that didn't mean he impressed them.
"When he throws his little change-up, it's like 85 miles an hour," Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake said. "It's not like a typical left-handed change-up, or a typical change-up. It's almost like a BP fastball that kind of dies a little bit. We let him off the hook."
Whatever Olsen threw, it worked. The Dodgers had scored 28 runs in three games against the Cincinnati Reds. After Olsen suppressed them, the Dodgers left town having scored five against the Nationals in 31 innings. Washington's starting pitching performance is pockmarked with calamity, but in the last full rotation all five starters threw at least six innings and allowed four runs or less.
"You look up on the board when we're in another town, you see they're in every game," Dodgers Manager Joe Torre said. "A big reason for it is the starting pitchers."
The Nationals cobbled together the only run they needed in the first inning. Nyjer Morgan led off the game by slashing a single to left against Dodgers starter Chad Billingsley and reached third after Adam Kennedy walked and Cristian Guzmán bunted. Dunn ripped a hard grounder to second, scoring Morgan easily. The plate stayed clean for the rest of the afternoon.
Clippard and Matt Capps, the divergent duo at the back end of the Nationals' bullpen, handled the final six outs with their own styles -- Clippard dominated, Capps escaped. After a 1-2-3 eighth lowered Clippard's ERA to 0.61, Capps yielded a leadoff double by James Loney. With the tying run in scoring position, Capps hunkered down. Ronnie Belliard blooped to right field, and Justin Maxwell made a face-plant diving catch for the second out. "Amazing," Riggleman said. Garret Anderson popped up, and the Nationals had another win.
With Ryan Zimmerman eyeing a return to the starting lineup in Chicago against the Cubs -- he jogged and took batting practice Sunday and said, "it's looking better and better each day" -- the Nationals stayed afloat without him; they are 5-4 in games without Zimmerman in the starting lineup. "It does remind us how good our ballclub can be," Riggleman said.
The Nationals may have known in spring training, even as they gave skeptics ammunition. "Even in the first days when we were 0-11, it was just a different feeling," starter Craig Stammen said. "There was just a cockiness in what we do that we were better than that."
The Nationals' latest validation erased the sting of Saturday's 13-inning defeat. Never did they show signs it had affected them.
This, after all, is a group accustomed to leaving its past behind. Music playing, the Nationals packed their suitcases Sunday for Chicago and Florida, the next stops in a long season.
Said Clippard, "It's gonna be fun."