Team chemistry is key to Washington Nationals' early success

One big, happy family, off to a surprising start: Bench coach John McLaren, rear, joins players, from left, Cristian Guzmán, Josh Willingham and Adam Dunn.
One big, happy family, off to a surprising start: Bench coach John McLaren, rear, joins players, from left, Cristian Guzmán, Josh Willingham and Adam Dunn. (Jonathan Newton/the Washington Post)
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By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Hours before each of their actual games, about a dozen members of the Washington Nationals form a circle in front of their dugout, like kids playing Hacky Sack at recess, to play a different kind of game. Most are players, a few are coaches. Some speak Spanish, some speak English. All of them, by the end, are laughing.

The game, imported from Latin American winter ball leagues, is called "Flip." Using their gloves, players smack a baseball at one another. When the ball hits the ground, the responsible party is eliminated. The knockouts continue until one player remains, a process filled with playful taunting ("Come and get you some!") and capped with jocular boasting ("Champ-I-On!")

The popularity of Flip is notable for one reason in particular: "We didn't do anything like that last year," outfielder Justin Maxwell said.

The Nationals formed in late February, an infusion of veterans mixing with young players who rose together through the farm system. They soon learned an elemental aspect of their team: They liked one another. By the end of spring training, the Nationals had developed a clubhouse-wide closeness lacking in recent seasons.

"We're a unit," center fielder Nyjer Morgan said. "We all believe in each other. You can see the difference."

As the 13-12 Nationals produced one of baseball's most surprising starts, their closeness manifested in several ways. After victories, they pass around a goofy, silver Elvis wig, a leftover from Morgan's Halloween costume, which he turned into a team-building totem. Large groups of teammates eat dinners out together after day games. When a heckler spewed vulgarities at starting pitcher Scott Olsen in Philadelphia this season, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman shouted him down.

"The whole clubhouse atmosphere is way better than it was last year," Maxwell said. "It's just the personalities that we have. It's a lot more fun coming to the ballpark every day. Winning makes everybody happy, but it's probably more the quality of individuals that we have on the team."

Without question, their success so far has helped facilitate their chemistry. At this point in the 2009 season, the Nationals had already lost any hope of contention. Injuries and ineffectiveness had blown up the roster.

"Last year, there was a lot of guys moving in and out," reliever Tyler Clippard said. "There was a lot of guys struggling, not performing, and people second-guessing everybody because of that. Right now, there's none of that going on. It's contagious."

The change began in spring training. New additions such as Iván Rodríguez, Adam Kennedy and Liván Hernández provided an aura of legitimacy and an example to be followed. First, they had to feel one another out. "Guys like Pudge, who you've played against for a while and you're not sure what they're like, really," Kennedy said. "They open up early, and it helps."

One crucial moment occurred late in March, when Manager Jim Riggleman named rookie Ian Desmond the starting shortstop over veteran Cristian Guzmán. A starter his whole career, Guzmán could have sulked and perhaps created a rift.

Instead, Guzmán that day took groundballs at second base without complaint. Guzmán had known Desmond since Desmond's first spring training in 2005, when he arrived as a touted 19-year-old. Guzmán looked out for Desmond then and through his minor league career.

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