Nationals' progress is making struggling Orioles easy to forget

By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 3, 2010

For Washington baseball fans who still cling to some of the affection they had for the Baltimore Orioles during the 33 years when D.C. had no team, it's getting really tough to hang onto faded memories. That past can retain its value. But the current O's, baseball's worst team, are evaporating from our future. That's especially true as the Washington Nationals prepare to take center stage in the baseball world next week.

Since the Nats came to town, they've wrestled with the O's for undecided voters, especially in wealthy suburbs in Maryland between the two ballparks. This season has finally done the trick.

By the All-Star break, the Nats may be the only logical summer choice for those without masochistic tendencies.

For the Nats to match their nadir last season at 26-66, they would have to lose their next 39 games. That's hard to believe. But for the O's to get to 26-66 this year, all they have to do is keep playing exactly as they are. That's even harder to fathom.

And next week, when the Nats presumably draft heralded 17-year-old Bryce Harper on Monday, then unveil Stephen Strasburg on Tuesday, we'll probably see another crucial pivot point in allegiances.

Each team faces a decision that defines where it sits. If the Orioles, who face .500-or-better teams in 45 of their next 48 games, keep plunging, they'll probably fire a manager they would rather keep. Dave Trembley is where Manny Acta was with the Nats a year ago.

As for the Nats, they've now entered the friendliest six weeks of their schedule. If lots of lame foes and 22 home games by the All-Star break can get them comfortably above .500, they'll have to decide whether to make trades, especially for a right fielder with power, so they can attempt a run at the playoffs.

The odds are still against such a fantasy summer -- but they're shortening. Of such spend-to-contend trades, one Nats source said, "Last weekend, those things were being discussed."

For many, this state of affairs evokes no ambivalence. The pure Nats fan is glad to laugh -- at the Birds or anybody else who has been snickering. The O's? They're just the team whose owner fought so long to keep baseball out of D.C. No forgetting, no forgiving.

Those who have known the O's only in their disaster mode can hardly keep from chuckling as the Birds blow up. Meantime, if the Nats fell down a manhole, they would land on a sack of gold. Last winter, both teams bought a closer. The O's got whom they wanted, Mike Gonzalez. The Nats preferred Billy Wagner, but settled for Matt Capps. Gonzalez has no saves, and his return from injury keeps getting pushed back. Capps, despite recent hiccups, leads the majors in saves.

Both teams had awful pitching, the worst in their leagues. The Orioles put all their eggs in one nest, top-dollar Kevin Millwood. He's winless. The Nats went for volume instead.

Quantity is winning. Jason Marquis (0-3) got hurt, but will be back around the All-Star game, a bit before the Nats hope Chien-Ming Wang will make his first start back in the majors. To hold the fort, dustbin pick-ups Liván Hernández and Scott Olsen have saved the staff with a combined 2.78 ERA in 18 starts.

Perhaps the most empathetic voice on the O's is, ironically, Nats President Stan Kasten. He sees similarities between their miseries this year and his own team's suffering last season, when he thought he had an improved team then watched it fall apart.

"We don't pay attention to the breakdown of fans in the [rich Maryland] counties between the cities," Kasten said. "The demographics of the region say the big dog in the market will be the Nats. But, separately, both towns are big enough to thrive.

"Right now, the Orioles are hurting. . . . By this time next year, both teams will have the most important thing you can have: good young starting rotations."

That's partly true. But just as important, the Nats realized two years ago that they had no heart to their batting order. They signed Adam Dunn, traded for Josh Willingham and hit home runs on both. Now, the Nats are the only team in baseball with three regulars with on-base-plus-slugging marks over .900. In the same area, the O's miscalculated badly. They assumed their three most gifted young stars -- Adam Jones, Nick Markakis and Matt Wieters -- would develop enough power to anchor a lineup in cozy Camden Yards. Not yet. And not close.

Is there a lesson in the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Wieters? A year ago, fans wanted him brought up fast after he hit .343 with 121 RBI in 578 at-bats in the minors. Best catching prospect ever? (Sound familiar, Harper fans?) Since then, in 522 at-bats, he has 13 homers and 59 RBI. Would a full season at Class AAA, instead of a few weeks, have been better? Now, the O's lineup only scares O's pitchers.

So which team has the future? By mid-season, the Nats' rotation could include any five from this list: Strasburg, John Lannan, Hernández, Olsen, Marquis, Luis Atilano, Craig Stammen or prospect Ross Detwiler, who'll start his minor-league season in two weeks. By Aug. 1, look for Wang.

However, the best news is that Jordan Zimmermann, the Nats' only top-of-the-rotation prospect except Strasburg, hit 94 mph in two recent extended spring training games.

"We won't rush him," Kasten said.

A third of a century is a huge portion of a baseball lifetime to pack in boxes and place in the attic. But, like many Washington fans, I've experienced that process over the past six seasons. I'm still glad to have easy access to both leagues. But it's not the same. In Washington, it's the Nats' time. Alone.

Long ago, the same thing happened in reverse and took the same amount of time. Six years after the Senators left, Washington fans grudgingly began migrating toward a young underdog Orioles team that contained none of the old Nat-thumping Robinsons. Soon, the careers of Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken, the '79 and '83 World Series, Davey Johnson's playoff teams and Camden Yards itself made Bal'mer the best alternative to endless summers of zilch. Now, the circle is complete. Soon, perhaps by next week, the Nats will be enough of a baseball team to suffice for any city.

That sure took long enough.

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