This year's Washington Nationals look like a different bunch

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, April 26, 2010

On Saturday, after they had lost in 13 innings to the Dodgers in a game they could and should have won several different times, the Nationals were so silent you could hear the sweat drip in their clubhouse. That's when you discover the competitive character of pro teams in all sports. How do they "wear" the bitter close defeats?

Most days, ballplayers need the emotional stability to endure a long season. But not always. Not after the worst defeats. Beware of players who wash those brutal losses off along with the shower water. Get rid of those who, too many times, fall back on the most pernicious words a pro athlete can utter -- "We'll get 'em tomorrow" -- as they head to their luxury cars in the parking lot.

Sometimes, to get clubhouse chemistry correct, you need a critical mass of players who can't help but chew and chew on those most exasperating defeats. Do things get smashed? At the least, are those first private clubhouse minutes used properly: to take collective professional ownership of a miserable defeat?

"On Saturday they wore that game so hard in here. It was not a nice place to be. That told me more about this team than any win this season. Now, they play a little angry," said one Nats executive after Washington had come back Sunday to beat the Dodgers, 1-0, and capture the series to conclude a 6-4 homestand.

With that win, the Nats are now 10-9. And they've done it despite playing 13 games against the Phillies, Rockies and Dodgers, who all won more than 90 games last year. What is the toughest section of the Nats' entire '10 schedule, by far? They just played it.

Instead of saying "Get 'em tomorrow," the Nats have finally assembled a tougher, more irritable group that actually does it.

Last Sunday, the Nats trailed 10-0 after one inning. But they won the next day. On Tuesday, they trailed 10-0 after three innings. Again, they won the following day.

Those 10-0 deficits underline the Nats' problem. Their starting rotation is still suspect -- an arm or two shy. Still, almost every other aspect of the Nats is startlingly better.

"We're way beyond last year. We're done with all that nonsense," said Scott Olsen, who pitched seven scoreless innings and has returned to his solid Marlin form after shoulder surgery.

"This team, this year, everybody expects to win every single night," said Adam Dunn, who drove in the lone run on Sunday.

"After the way we lost yesterday, it was a really big win," said Josh Willingham, known as a poor left fielder who made his fourth diving face-plant catch of the season in the eighth inning. "Last year, we were a bad defensive team. I take some pride in becoming a better outfielder. There's more than one way to help the team."

Finally, in the ninth inning with a Dodger on second base, right fielder Justin Maxwell, a 6-foot-5 speedster who stole 41 bases last year, made perhaps the Nats' most spectacular catch of their vastly improved defensive season. He nabbed a Ronnie Belliard blooper as his chin practically dug a divot.

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