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Believe it or not, the Washington Nationals are a franchise on the rise

By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, May 13, 2010; D01

So much has happened so fast it's hard to keep up with the transformation of the Nationals. The changes began late in 2008, when the Lerners finally decided to spend some money, then accelerated last spring when Mike Rizzo became GM and Stan Kasten's views were given more weight. In the past month, it has all come together. Suddenly, the Nats are in the sport's mainstream.

In the NL East standings, you can find the Nats at 19-15, ahead of the rich Mets, rebuilding Braves and gritty Marlins. Second place might be a bit pricey for a summer-long stay, but a classy neighborhood is where the Nats actually live these days.

Never tell big leaguers who've found some chemistry and momentum how many games they can win. Let them tell you. It's more fun that way. But whatever you expected from the Nats after their 11-1 opening day loss, it's a whole handful more now.

When you add a southpaw starter (healthy Scott Olsen with a 3.51 ERA), a closer (Matt Capps, who's 14 for 14 in save opportunities), a setup man (Tyler Clippard, 7-1 with a 1.80 ERA) and a gifted shortstop (Ian Desmond), all 26 or younger, you've changed your future. When a fit Liv?n Hern?ndez (4-1, 1.04) and an energized Iv?n Rodr?guez (.383) play like stars, you suddenly have postseason MVPs as leaders.

On Wednesday, the Nats got the kind of bad news that might have derailed other seasons: Jason Marquis, a 2009 all-star and $15 million free agent, will undergo elbow surgery and miss four to six weeks. But with Craig Stammen developing and a stockpile of serviceable starters such as Luis Atilano (3-0) and Matt Chico, the Nats' rotation might be okay, even before Stephen Strasburg arrives, as long as John Lannan remains healthy after skipping his last start.

Then there is the parade of established pitchers returning from injury (Chien-Ming Wang) and lefty prospects (Aaron Thompson and Ross Detwiler) who might be ready before midseason.

Too much starting pitching "is a mythical creature, like the Loch Ness Monster, the Abominable Snowman and the agent with a heart of gold in 'Jerry Maguire,' " Kasten said. Because the Nats had an apparent excess of arms, they may still have enough now.

Wednesday's 6-4 win was typical of the Nats -- that's to say, atypical of any team. Rookie Roger Bernadina, heretofore part of the weak right field platoon, hit the first two homers of his career, including a 420-foot game-winner off $37 million closer Francisco Rodriguez, and saved three runs with a diving catch.

The other Nat with three RBI? Stammen, the starting pitcher. The winning pitcher? Clippard, who was clobbered in the Mets' six-run eighth inning Tuesday night, when the Nats blew a 6-2 lead. This season, resilience is a Nat.

As much of a spring shock as the Nats have been, they may morph again by this time next year. Few teams have the immediate youth pipeline, the quality arms recovering from injury and the low-payroll flexibility to improve so quickly.

With the full-time arrival of Strasburg and rookie reliever Drew Storen, the recovery from surgery of Jordan Zimmermann, as well as the possible signing of a power-hitting, free agent right fielder next winter, the Nats could nudge into the top half of the sport as a wild-card contender next season. For such a thing to happen, every young pitching arm doesn't have to pan out -- just enough of them. That's how winning organizations do it.

Rizzo has blown up the roster he inherited and tried to explode its defeatist mind-set, too. Seven Nats have played in the World Series and an eighth in the AL Championship Series. That doesn't include Adam Dunn, headed toward a 500-homer career, all-star Ryan Zimmerman or power bat Josh Willingham. The Nats no longer lack experience or attitude.

Progress has been big, but more annoyance may be in store in the short term. With Marquis out and Lannan worrisome, with the bullpen one strong arm shy of stability and six road games against the Rockies and Cardinals on tap, the Nats are temporarily vulnerable.

Next week, the Nats may return home having survived the 40 toughest games of their whole season -- 19 against '09 playoff teams and six more against nemesis Marlins -- with a winning record. Or they may limp back after doses of Ubaldo Jimenez and Albert Pujols.

But in a month, if Strasburg and Storen are aboard, or in a year with more reinforcements, one conclusion is sensible. The Nats are one of the game's fastest-rising teams.

Of course, when you start from 205 losses in two years, "up" is relative. But the Nats aren't just some lousy team staggering up toward respectability. They're probably past that. In their last 105 games under Manager Jim Riggleman, they're 52-53. Once back home, they play 63 straight games against non-playoff teams.

The last four years, the Nats' season has, for competitive purposes, been over by now. So, fans may think baseball answers our questions quickly. But normally that's not the pleasure given by the long season. You have to wait. Revalue. Then wait again.

Most teams have at least one hot streak where they go 10 games over .500 as well as one when they are 10 games under .500. For example, the '06 Nats had streaks of 6-17, 15-5 and 4-15 by the end of June. This year's Nats haven't even had their first real period of exhilaration. Or potential disaster. They'll have both, maybe multiple times.

The difference this season is that those streaks and skids, that process of going from worst-to-good that's now only a month old, will actually be worth the watching.

Washington got a major taste of baseball pleasure in '05. But that was a team without a future, an ex-Expo club being gussied up for sale. This is entirely different. The Nats have needs, especially at the top of the rotation. But count the current Nats who could be key contributors to a winner in '11 or '12. Two years ago, you could count them on one hand. Now, you run out of fingers -- fast.

The next few days could get scary. But the next few years should be fun.

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