By Thomas Boswell
Monday, April 26, 2010; D01
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.
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.
It's not just the Nats' record that is different this spring. The Nats themselves are. They're starting to resemble the first gritty crew that brought baseball back to D.C. after a 33-year wait.
In '05, when they first arrived from Montreal-Puerto Rico, the Nationals -- the homeless joke franchise of baseball for years -- wore defeat with all the suppressed fury of a prison team that gets outside the walls one day a year to play the guards. And then loses.
But that fire died. The last two seasons, the Nats were just like many Redskins and Wizards teams of the last 20 and 30 years, respectively. They tried. They wished they'd won. But, as they repeatedly made peace with defeat within minutes, you remembered old Gene Mauch's words, "The worst day in a manager's life is the day you realize you care more than they do."
Getting a more serious, mature attitude has been a driving factor in every decision General Manager Mike Rizzo has made in the last 14 months. Can it really have that much impact?
"Attitude is the biggest difference," said Dunn. "Now, when we lose, it's personal, like it's supposed to be."
If all these developments seem slow in coming, they are. The Nats are probably about two years behind the original plan.
But who's counting? When a town waits a third of a century for a team, what's a couple of more seasons? Now, the Nats are finally feisty and competitive, and perhaps most important, resilient.
So far, the Nats have ignored a 0-11 spring training start as well as an 11-1 loss on opening day as invading Phils fans booed them in their own park. Their $15 million free agent, Jason Marquis, was torched in his only three starts (20.52 ERA) and is now disabled for probably six weeks (elbow). All-star Ryan Zimmerman has missed almost as many games (hamstring) as he's started. Neither their opening day starter nor their cleanup hitter has produced.
But others have. It's called depth. The Nats finally have some. On Sunday, Matt Capps (0.79) got his eighth straight save and emerging setup man Tyler Clippard (0.61) was immaculate again. Old Liván Hernández, dumped by the Mets in '09 and unwanted in the offseason, now has the lowest ERA of any starter in baseball (0.75). And Pudge Rodríguez, 38, leads the league in hitting.
For the moment, hopes may even be running a bit too high. "You can't keep denying us. Nobody gives us credit for anything -- until we beat their [rear end]," outfielder Willie Harris said.
Then he added, obliquely, "I feel like we're going to be right there where we need to be when it's time to be there. Strasburg, Storen, those guys, if we're playing well and we got a chance to be there, those guys are coming."
"Be there?" Was that a reference to Stephen Strasburg and Drew Storen being called up in June to help with a possible summer push toward a playoff race? Why, it sure sounded like it.
"We've got to keep grinding like this," said Zimmerman, grinning. "Help is on the way. It's going to be a fun summer."
That might seem a proper stopping point, except it has too much of an easy April glow. Rizzo, not the daydreaming sort, says, "We're a long way from where we want to be. A day will come when we'll be very disappointed by a 3-3 road trip and a 6-4 homestand.
"But we've reached the point where there is no lack of effort and no lack of caring."
And, so far, that has made all the difference.