Nationals are more furious about loss than excited about future

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, June 7, 2010; D01

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.

"Our fans give us a long leash," said Manager Jim Riggleman. "Internally, we're saying the heck with that. Lets get over the hump."

Short-term, Strasburg should help. Longer-term, Harper might be huge. In the 17-year-old from Las Vegas, the Nats get a player scouts think could be the starting catcher or right fielder in 2013 or '14 at the latest.

After facing junior college pitching this season using a wooden bat, Harper may be an even higher probability to succeed than some other No. 1-overall picks of the last generation who came out of high school. On that list: Darryl Strawberry, Chipper Jones, Griffey Jr., Adrian Gonzalez, Alex Rodriguez and Mauer.

"The safest draft is a high school hitter. That's been the most successful strategy," Riggleman said.

Pitchers break. Hitters heal. So any hurler, even Strasburg, is always a risk. But a Harper, once he proves his talent translates to the high minors, is almost a long-term lock.

"Draft time is exciting. When you get a really good hitter, you can't hold 'em back," said Riggleman. "If Harper is like Jason Heyward [the slugging 20-year-old Atlanta rookie right fielder] and Strasburg is like Tim Lincecum or (11-1) Ubaldo Jiménez, then you can dream on it. Will they be that good?

"If it does turn out that way, well, then we got both of 'em on the same team. And they'll be here while Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, and Drew Storen are all still young. You'd have a large core of really special young athletes. It's got a chance to be an exciting next few years around here."

Perhaps the only significant doubt about Harper is his makeup. Not his intensity, but perhaps too much ego and self-aggrandizing flash, like the big black grease splotches on his cheeks that serve no purpose but to identify him as Bryce Harper. The Braveheart Does Baseball face paint, the showboating antics when he gets in the batter's box, that will disappear quickly or he'll pay a price in hostility that no sensible young pro would invite.

Harper may be less of a risk because nobody in General Manager Mike Rizzo's operation is likely to keep a big head for long. That supposed super-talent Lastings Milledge (still homerless this year in Pittsburgh) lasted only weeks after Rizzo took charge.

"[Minor league field instructor] Bobby Henley is the ultimate no-nonsense professional, as good a man as you'll get," Riggleman said. "When we put a player in his hands, he will be instructed in everything -- in how you need to react to every situations, or associate with your teammates or make comments. It's like baseball undergraduate school."

From all accounts, Harper is a baseball dirt dog who loves to be taught. So, the match with the Nats may actually be a fit.

On a child's birthday, you never say, "Don't expect too much. That way you won't risk being disappointed." Instead, you put on a big silly grin and enjoy opening the presents right along with them.

So, temporarily, ignore what has happened to the Nationals recently, especially this past week. For the Nats, the next two days will be a chance to celebrate the unveiling of two enormous gifts. However, an equally good piece of news is the radically changed atmosphere into which those young players will be moving.

"The majors aren't like people told me they'd be. They talk about how pros play for themselves," said Storen, a rookie from Stanford who owns a 1.93 ERA. "It's just 180 degrees opposite. We care when we lose. Days like this hurt. You come in here and you can tell it's about the name on the front of the jersey -- 'Nationals' -- not the name on the back of the jersey."

But the identities on the back of the jerseys matter, too. Soon, for "Strasburg," and before very long for "Harper," those names will be written large in Washington and probably for many years.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company