If you are watching the Nationals these days, and maybe you aren’t because the weather’s beautiful and you may be saner than I am, then you are seeing the creation, game by grinding game, of a pennant contender.
A team that seemed like a fringe playoff factor on opening day is growing up ahead of schedule, facing constant obstacles but responding by discovering strengths, in talent and team identity, it didn’t know it had.
Whether the profit in that process shows up this year or in future is unknown but also unmistakable: The Nats are turning bad to good account.
This maturation happens one item at a time. Electric Gio Gonzalez evolves into an elite Cy Young Award candidate. Bryce Harper’s maniacal teenage magic inspires his adult teammates. And, most important, the Nats dig down 37 men deep to overcome 12 players on the disabled list.
You’re probably lucky. You know there are 114 games left to play. Me? The Nats commandeered my Memorial Day weekend. I have a family and had, I thought, a long holiday ahead of me. But the first-place Nats, with baseball’s third-best record, are such a daily drama of injuries and wins, intimidating pitchers and makeshift lineups, that I got hooked.
Nothing fascinates me more than watching a fine team discover itself. Wildly different personalities blend into one team identity. You glimpse Harper breaking up laughing after his long home run on Sunday night. Who’s the sly buddy needling him? It’s Stephen Strasburg.
The mark of emerging teams, especially those developing an unselfish, smart and mutually dependent identity, is the procession of discovering essential but unlikely heroes. The Nats seem to generate two of ’em a game.
The light has gone on for reliever Craig Stammen. Lefty Sean Burnett doesn’t just close games, but does it grinning. Goon Squad boss Chad Tracy swatted a pinch-hit double, then disabled himself jogging it out. But the Nats always exhume somebody, at least so far. Catcher Carlos Maldonado, a 17-year minor league vet whom the team lists at 290 pounds, started on Monday. Until Jesus Flores feels friskier, you may see more of him, which is saying a lot.
Seldom-sighted Chien-Ming Wang won in relief on Friday and, voila, discovers himself back in the rotation. That lets lefty Ross Detwiler add even more depth to a bullpen that’s flourished without closer Drew Storen.
For the Nats, now 5-2 on a nine-game road trip against their three main National League East rivals, there’s often glitter in the dust of defeats. On Monday, the Nats got into Miami at 3 a.m. after sweeping the Braves, then took the field just 10 hours later. They lost 5-3 to the Marlins. On a day when even the best of teams might take a sleep-walk pummeling, the Nats had chances to win. And in the eighth inning, Henry Rodriguez pounded strikes to Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez and Giancarlo Stanton. If SMH-Rod turns back into MPH-Rod, then the day was well spent.
Typical of this season, Steve Lombardozzi, the play-anywhere switch-hitting rookie, got three more hits (.323). He’s convinced Manager Davey Johnson he’s the Nats’ leadoff man even when slugger Michael Morse returns to left field in a few days. The kid is going to play a lot, everywhere.
There isn’t a silver lining in everything. There’s nothing good in the season-ending knee injury of catcher Wilson Ramos. But almost every other injury had had some perverse, albeit completely unwanted, benefit. Without Storen, Tyler Clippard has his heart’s desire — a shot to be the main closer until his roommate gets back in July. He’s been lights out. An injury to Brad Lidge opened a roster spot for Stammen. In a convoluted way, injuries forced Lombardozzi to get so many at bats that now he’s earned even more.
Jayson Werth’s broken wrist was a punch in the gut. But it opened the door for Harper at the earliest possible moment. Davey Johnson’s spring training wish came true. Harper could use ’12 to establish himself, then, perhaps, become a star a full year sooner.
Maybe Harper’s just “seeing the ball well” right now. Or perhaps he’s so euphoric at reaching the big leagues at 19 that he’s playing on his own private cloud. But, right now, he’s having more impact on more games in more ways than either Cal Ripken or Eddie Murray did when I watched them every day as rookie stars at 21.
On Monday only a great catch stole a two-run double from Harper that probably would’ve put the Nats up 5-4. The bigger the moment or the foe, the more he wants it. Imagine an Albert Pujols line drive homer to left field, gone in a blink. That’s what Harper’s missile off lefty Johnny Venters on Saturday looked like, but to the opposite field.
The central fact about the Nats, with the season a third over in a week, is that they’ve had the best total pitching staff in baseball. And it’s based on pure intimidating stuff, wave after wave of it, which has the Nats No. 1 in ERA, strikeouts, velocity, lowest homers allowed and almost every other stat that indicates dominance. Drill into advanced stats (xFIP yourself silly) or just use your eyes. If the Nats don’t end ’12 ranked No. 1, they’ll be close.
As excellent as Strasburg has been (5-1, 2.64, 70 strikeouts in 58 innings), the Nats’ best pitcher has been Gonzalez. Does he really love, and devour the N.L. this much? Has his “effectively wild” style improved just enough that he is now the most “unhittable pitcher” in baseball? Sure, maybe he’s having a career spring and will revert to his Oakland form, just an all-star. But after Sunday’s win, he led the majors in wins, strikeouts, batting average against and a bunch of other stuff. Nobody is within GPS range of his ridiculous ratio of 79 Ks to just 33 hits. The great Justin Verlander is 75-to-46. Gonzalez is only third in baseball in ERA (2.04). Shame on you, Gio.
Oh, woe, what will the Nats do if they reach the postseason but Strasburg has been shut down for the season? It’d be such a bummer to slog on without Strasburg. Yada, yada. The guy with the whaler whiskers is wonderful. But right now, Gonzalez can start a play-in wild-card game or Game 1 of a division series for anybody.
Maybe this isn’t the year the Nats stick around, get semi-healthy and show up in October — though the idea sure seems to appeal to them. But if they should get there — several Nats, no doubt, with arms in slings while playing the fife — a tribute should be summoned that is appropriate to such an unlikely deed.
Something involving Teddy Roosevelt, bandaged head-to-toe, might do.
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