By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 24, 2010; D01
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-
baseball Orioles, this would've been a deflating losing homestand. In fact, this 20-games-in-20-days stretch, which the Nats survived with a 10-10 mark, might've seemed like a letdown.
Instead, the Nats actually look ahead to facing Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito in the last two of their three-game set in San Francisco -- well, sort of.
Seasons evolve in sections. Nothing is written; all is created as we watch. While the Orioles, their bullpen vaporized, have seen their season destroyed already, the Nats have fed on surprises like the rebirth of Iván Rodríguez, the hitting of super-sub Cristian Guzmán, who's second in the NL in hitting (.345) and Liván Hernández, whose 1.62 ERA is even lower than Roy Halladay's stellar 1.64 in Philadelphia.
The Nats already see the next section of their season -- if they can just reach it.
It's said that, to be a playoff contender, you must play .500 against good teams and beat the hell out of the bad ones.
The Nats have actually met the first part of that challenge. They played exactly .500 in their first 42 games, including 19 games against '09 playoff squads and only three games against lousy teams that are currently headed toward 92 or more losses.
Now, starting with this Orioles series, they finally got to show whether they can beat up the bad teams; in a stretch of 34 games, they play 22 games against those dreary teams. Thanks to Willingham, they started right.
If they can survive a tough week against the strong pitching, but poor hitting, of the Giants and Padres, they will enter a four-week period when they have a chance to "make a run," if they are capable of it. Not only will Strasburg presumably arrive, along with foes such as the Astros, Pirates, Indians, Royals, White Sox and Orioles, but three homestands await them before the all-star break. "They say if you're in the race on Memorial Day, you'll be in it all season," right-hander Craig Stammen said.
The most remarkable turnaround in many local fans' memories is the '89 Orioles who improved by 33 wins to 87-75 and made a run at the postseason that lasted until the season's final weekend. That's very rare. Only five teams improved by 30 wins in the past 50 years. Only 14 others have rocketed up by 25 wins. So, please, grasp how remote the odds are on the Nats as a wild-card threat.
But the '89 Orioles also started 21-21. They also hit a friendly section of the schedule at this time of year. And, before they cooled off, they'd reached 41-28. That dash made their season. Perhaps no one outside the Nats' clubhouse thinks such thoughts. But no one else has to. Whether the Nats use the next five weeks as a springboard to make their whole summer a treat, the rest of the sport is already noticing them.
"Whenever somebody says something positive, I always say, 'It's still early,' " General Manager Mike Rizzo said. "But Tony La Russa sees it. Bobby Cox sees it."
Recently, after the Nats played four straight tight games with the Rockies, Rizzo used his "it's early" line to deflect a compliment from Colorado General Manager Dan O'Dowd.
"Bull," shot back O'Dowd. "You've got a real club."
It's early. But, on days like this, it's getting later pretty fast.