Nationals have an opportunity to capture the hearts of Washingtonians this summer

The remarkably good play of rookie Ian Desmond, right, at shortstop (just three errors this season) is a key reason why the Nationals are above .500 and creating buzz in a barren D.C. sports landscape.
The remarkably good play of rookie Ian Desmond, right, at shortstop (just three errors this season) is a key reason why the Nationals are above .500 and creating buzz in a barren D.C. sports landscape. (Ricky Carioti/the Washington Post)
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By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The window is now open for the Nats. For three months, until the Redskins rev up again, the town is theirs if they can take it.

Few franchises, especially one that botched its first two years in a new park, ever get a second chance to make a first impression. But the Nats got lucky. Every accident of timing has conspired to make the Nats the main game in town for the next 100 days.

The party's over for the Capitals, at least on the ice. The gun-toting Wizards are long gone. The Orioles just swept the Red Sox -- to reach 7-18. D.C. United is winless and now as bad in soccer as the Nats were in baseball the past two years. No college sport offers competition. Even the PGA Tour isn't here this summer.

Basically, if you enjoy big-time live local sports, you can go to Nats Park -- there's now tons of parking and the team is 13-12 with Stephen Strasburg coming pretty soon -- or you can . . . well, there really isn't anything else until the Redskins' first exhibition game.

Will the Nats grab their chance? It won't be easy. But if they can survive their tough schedule over the next 15 games and stay near .500, they will then hit a long stretch of 62 straight games where they don't face a single team that made the playoffs in '09.

If the Nats are still close to .500 on May 19, we might be fantasizing about wild-card scenarios until July 30 when their schedule returns to normal difficulty again. Almost every season a couple of unlikely teams delight their fans until the dog days hit in August. They seldom make the playoffs, but they certainly make a lot of new friends. With the breaks, that could be the Nats.

Such best-case scenarios, however, will have to be battled for every day because no game is easy for the Nats. They're still the sport's underdog. Their battery on Tuesday, when they get home from a 3-3 trip will exemplify it: old Liván Hernández and Iván Rodríguez. Liván and Iván -- what perfect Nats.

No team wanted either for a starting role in the offseason. Now, Livo's ERA is 0.87, second best in baseball; and if Pudge (.400 batting average) had a few more at-bats, he'd qualify as the game's leading hitter. Nobody expects them to stay at such silly levels. But they are the inspiration for that 13-12 start and team leaders, too.

Last year, the Nats added Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham to Ryan Zimmerman to build a true 95-homer heart of the order. This year, since both General Manager Mike Rizzo and Manager Jim Riggleman love speed, the team has dubbed itself the "Track Nats." They're fourth in MLB in steals with eight players (honestly) who are a threat to run. Just as vital, rookie Ian Desmond at short, Adam Kennedy at second and a trio of (light-hitting) right fielders add enormously to defensive range. Desmond (only three errors) has been remarkable.

Since mid-2009, when he traded for Nyjer Morgan, Rizzo has improved the Nats' defense at six of eight positions. Only Zimmerman, a Gold Glove, and Willingham, are in the same spots. And Dunn, knock on wood, may actually be a real first baseman.

In addition to tangible improvement to the Nats' roster, there's also the indisputable element of "buzz." The Nats finally have it.

In early June, if not sooner, the Nats will presumably bring up reliever Drew Storen, who looks ready for seventh-inning duty. Since the Nats already have the big-league save leader with 10 in Matt Capps ("Lets Go Capps"), as well as the hardest-to-hit reliever in Tyler Clippard (seven hits in 18 innings), can it be long before a headline reads: "Nats bullpen: Clip, Store and Save."


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