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

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, May 4, 2010; D01

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."

Unless the Nats are completely allergic to great publicity, they will identify the first week of June as an almost unprecedented chance for maximum exposure. Call up unheralded Stephen Strasburg for his major league debut during the home series against the Reds on June 4-5-6, then, on June 7, use their No. 1 overall draft pick to select Sports Illustrated cover boy Bryce Harper.

This isn't a "could happen." It's probably going to happen.

Recently, a scouts' consensus has formed as Harper, 17, has crushed junior-college pitching. Now that he's taken a step up from schoolboy foes, there's a gap between Harper and the next pick, a view with which the Nats privately agree. There'll be the normal Scott-Boras-client drama. But Rizzo and Boras got Strasburg signed (with 77 seconds to spare). This should get done, too.

When a high school hitter "separates" from the pack in scouts' eyes, you have to pick him. Why? Since '77, 16 high school hitters have been taken No. 1 overall, including Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Chipper Jones, Joe Mauer, Adrian Gonzalez, Darryl Strawberry and Harold Baines.

At some point, reality had to intrude on this column. All these good things are true. But life is still hard for the Nats. Until they have a right fielder with power, they'll stay an average offensive team. Until Storen arrives, the bullpen is thin with no trusted lefty.

And free agent Jason Marquis, after allowing 20 runs in 8 1/3 innings, is out until midseason with elbow miseries. If Scott Olsen, apparently all the way back from shoulder surgery, hadn't teamed with Livo to pick up the slack, nobody would be talking about the "over-.500 Nats," not with John Lannan scuffling.

Eventually, a cast of thousands -- Strasburg, perhaps Chien-Ming Wang, rookie Ross Detwiler, a rehabbed Marquis and others -- will take their turns at rotation auditions. Some should succeed. And with Jordan Zimmermann due back in the rotation in '11, a year from now, the Nats should have a solid starting staff.

But, for now, the Nats face 20 games in 20 days -- the first 15 against a stiff schedule. If the Nats can battle through May, as they survived April, reinforcements and buzz are on the way.

A metropolitan area with a population of more than 5 million and plenty of disposable income will be monitoring them. Bored out of their sports-loving minds.

Many in this great sprawling area barely know where South Capitol Street is, much less Nationals Park. They need an excuse to take the trouble to see Zimmerman field, Dunn slug, Morgan steal, Capps save and, soon, Strasburg hurl his bolts.

In a local culture saturated with pro and high-level college sports, the much-improved Nats suddenly have an unexpected vista -- from May to August -- that they can fill with entertainment.

If they can.

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