Nationals are more furious about loss than excited about future

The Washington Post's Dave Sheinin and Tom Boswell preview the Nationals likely No. 1 draft selection, Bryce Harper. At 16 years old, Harper hit the longest home run in the history of Tropicana Field (502 feet).
By Thomas Boswell
Monday, June 7, 2010

The Nationals themselves don't give a damn if they are drafting Bryce Harper on Monday with the No. 1 overall pick and that he may, in about three years, begin a major league career that could be comparable to a Joe Mauer or even Ken Griffey Jr.

And they don't care a great deal, or at least won't for a couple of days, that Stephen Strasburg will have his big-league debut on Tuesday night at Nationals Park as the baseball world focuses on a career which, over the next few years, promises to fall somewhere along the arc of Ben McDonald-Mark Prior-Dwight Gooden.

Instead, the Nats are so furious you could fry eggs on their necks after a 1-5 June swoon and a longer 7-16 skid that has them grinding their teeth. The last four seasons, a 27-31 mark would've been consolation to a bad team going nowhere. Now, hellish failure.

"Until recently, I could hit a gnat's [backside] on a bull's-eye with a fastball low and away. Now I'm leaving everything up," said snake-bitten reliever Matt Capps who, in a 5-4 loss to the Reds, blew his third save of the week because (again) his right fielder missed a catchable line drive and (again) an umpire blew a third-strike checked swing call and his next pitch was struck for a game-winning hit.

After Capps exonerated his mates and the umps, then took full responsibility for his sins, the media left him. "Somebody get me a live chicken," Capps muttered. "I'd settle for a bucket of fried chicken, like in 'Major League.' Anything."

Animal sacrifice to change your luck is still frowned upon, but if Strasburg finds a mound of feathers in front of Capps locker Tuesday, don't be surprised. A hot rookie is nice, but it's not as important as your closer's luck. That can ice a whole team.

The Nats' anger is actually the good news. The Harper pick, a no-brainer, and the Strasburg debut, a genuine baseball big event, are great for the front office to sell to fans. But players themselves know that help from Harper is two to four years away while even a pitcher as fine as Strasburg can only add a few wins in the 16 or so starts he has left before he hits his team-imposed inning limit.

For the Nats to enjoy this season, fulfill their goals, they have to greet the Pirates, Indians, Tigers, White Sox, Royals and Orioles -- all but one of them far below .500 -- with much better baseball.

"I've felt awful at the plate for three weeks. I am awful. I haven't been locked in once all year," fumed slumping Adam Dunn, who couldn't find an RBI, especially in the clutch, with a flashlight and a search patrol.

"The only positive is that we're only four games under .500 and we haven't done anything offensively [all year]," Dunn said. "At least we've got [104] games left. Thank you, Lord."

Both Nats fans, and the sport at large, wonder if the Nats are really improved enough to continue at a 75-win pace, 16 better than last year. Some in the front office whisper, "How are we near .500?" when Luis Atilano (5-1) and Liván Hernández (4-3) are the top winners while Jason Marquis and John Lannan have done little.

Yet, with Strasburg arriving for a three-month energy fix, that's where the Nats are. But they're not happy about it.

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