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).

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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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