Especially if their 10-game trip goes well, it could be an exciting summer for the Washington Nationals

Drew Storen, who has a 2.25 ERA in four big league games, is one of many bright spots.
Drew Storen, who has a 2.25 ERA in four big league games, is one of many bright spots. (Toni L. Sandys/the Washington Post)
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By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 24, 2010

Walk-off home runs to close a homestand have a way of changing a team's mood and even altering its willingness to talk about its future. Liquor may loosen lips, but in baseball, nothing does the trick quite like a win as exciting as the Nats' 4-3 triumph over the Orioles on Sunday. Josh Willingham's 10th-inning smash into the visitor's bullpen moved Washington back above .500 at 23-22. And start the dreaming.

Now, the Nats head west for a tricky 10-game trip with one idea standing squarely in front of them. Their next game here on June 4 will likely be Stephen Strasburg's major league debut as well. What if they are still over .500 then, or close to it?

How good could they be if they added a starter as dominant as other young aces in their league like Tommy Hanson, Clayton Kershaw or Yovani Gallardo? Right now, the Nats don't think they need a Hall of Famer to be a winning team, maybe even a playoff-contending team, as ludicrous as that might have sounded on opening day. A rookie such as Strasburg, plus the return of a healthy Scott Olsen in a couple of weeks, might just be enough. Toss in the eventual rehab of Jason Marquis and it's not nuts.

Is that the baseball consensus? No way. My view? Not yet. But it's increasingly the Nats' own opinion. That may matter more.

"We've played great baseball. But we can get better. Then the sky's the limit," said John Lannan, who lost a win because Matt Capps blew his first save in 17 tries, allowing two Baltimore runs in the ninth inning. "Just think if we get better."

"We're excited where we're at," Ryan Zimmerman said. "But we're only going to get better as [the season] goes on."

The Nats won this game with what has, all of a sudden, become the team's greatest strength -- a bullpen that is one of the deepest in the NL. Lefties Sean Burnett (2.51 ERA) and Sunday's winner Doug Slaten (1.42) have found their form, complementing major league save leader Capps and Tyler Clippard (7-3), who lowered his ERA to 2.12. And then there is rookie Drew Storen, Strasburg's buddy.

How can the Nats keep from being a little giddy when they watch what Storen has already done in his first seven days in the big leagues? In four games, Storen has a 2.25 ERA, including a win. On Sunday, he got five key middle-inning outs, including a strikeout of Luke Scott on his signature pitch, a hard curveball, that complements a 96-mph sinker.

In his first at-bat since high school, the switch-hitting Storen didn't know whether he might be asked to bunt, which he'd have done right-handed, or swing away left-handed; so he looked for a double-flapped helmet which was small enough to fit his head. Nobody could find one. So, Storen took the batboy's helmet.

Storen took a strike from Orioles $12 million ace Kevin Millwood, then swung for the fences but missed for strike two, then poked a line single to left field on the third pitch as his teammates yelped in disbelief. What can't these two do?

"The biggest adjustment was seeing a man on the mound. The last time I batted, it was a kid," said Storen of the 6-foot-4, 235-pound stubble-bearded Millwood. "I thought, 'This guy is big.' "

If the Nats, after Capps's blown save -- on an infield single, a double and a soft flare single to right by Julio Lugo -- had lost to the worst-in-

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