KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Nationals are dead serious. They’re not an arriving franchise. They’re not just “for real” or a feel-good story or worthy of being patted on the head and complimented on their progress from the abyss of ’08-’09.
A dominant theme of this All-Star Game has been the full-blown presence of the Nats as a National League power, as the best power-pitching team in the sport and a franchise with an immediate future as bright, or conceivably brighter, than any team. At stake in the All-Star Game is home field advantage in the World Series. Whether Washington quite realizes it yet or not, that is now a National issue after an 8-0 victory over the American League.
Has the warm, breezy midsummer evening mood of this event addled many minds here? Is this an infatuation based on three remarkable months as the 49-34 Nats posted the NL’s best record despite having a dozen players on the disabled list ? Not likely. Baseball is too vain about its hard-eyed judgment for summer romances.
All three Nats in this game lived up to their billing. In the third inning, lefty Gio Gonzalez needed only 11 pitches, seven strikes, to fan the Rangers’ 2011 post-season hero Mike Napoli and retire a pair of stellar Yanks, Curtis Granderson and Derek Jeter. When you are tied for the MLB lead in wins, like Gonzalez, isn’t that expected?
Stephen Strasburg follow Gio to the mound for a scoreless fourth inning, though he gave up a single and walk while getting lefties Josh Hamilton and Prince Fielder to ground sharply into a double play and line out to left field, respectively.
His amazement came through in a Tweet sent during the game. “I had to face Cano, Hamilton, Bautista, and Fielder!! Pretty insane!”
Afterward, Strasburg was more reflective. “Everything here was a reflection of the times. Players asked what it’s like to play in Nats Park, even about little things like the curly ‘W.’ They want to know all about our team now,” he said. “When Ryan Zimmerman came [in the 100-loss days just a few years ago], I don’t imagine it was like that.”
In his way, 19-year-old Bryce Harper, the youngest everyday player ever to make the All-Star Game, showed most of the sides of himself. In his first at-bat, he drew a walk off Jered Weaver, at 10-1 with a 1.96 ERA perhaps the toughest right-hander in the AL through the season’s first half. Then he tagged and took second base aggressively on a long fly.
Then the teenage side of Harper appeared. He gambled that a chop would get over the head of the 6-foot-7 Weaver so he could reach third with one out. But Weaver leaped, snagged the ball and trapped him in a rundown. In the bottom of the inning, Harper gazed into a twilight sky for a routine fly, saw nothing and put his arms out beside him in the universal baseball sign of helplessness. The ball dropped for a “hit” a few feet behind him. Oh, he wore iridescent gold shoes, the flashiest of any star.
Four hours before the first pitch, Harper and Mike Trout, 20, of the Angels, held a press conference — just the two of them. On Monday, NL Manager Tony La Russa, whose eye for talent is one reason he’ll be in the Hall of Fame, said they would be the respective “faces of their leagues” for years to come. Some players, especially rookies, never get on the field in their first all-star game. If Harper and Trout hadn’t gotten to hit, Commissioner Bud Selig might have stormed the field. Over the last two days Washington has also emerged as the front-runner for the 2015 All-Star Game.
Some thought Mets knuckleballer R.A. Dickey would get big play in this game. His autobiography is in bookstores. He owns a 12-1 record in a New York market. Instead, it was Strasburg and Gonzalez, who rank first and third in the majors in strikeouts-per-inning. They were ushered in the game in the early innings to make sure they’d get to work while the big national TV audience was at its largest.
Priory: Get the Nats in the center of the frame.
Some things are hard to believe, even when you have watched them come into focus every step of the way. The sudden prominence, and respect, shown to the Nats here easily surpasses what Washington probably expects. Is this partially wish fulfillment as baseball hopes a strong franchise will emerge in a top-10 market in the Nation’s Capital? Yes, among Selig’s long list of wishes before he retires, that would probably be one.
But because baseball plays so many games, has so much data to sift through and gets to evaluate players over such a long truth-serum span of time, the game has very clear internal views on the state of promising franchises. For example, everybody here chucks the plucky Pirates under the chin and hopes they finish over .500. The Orioles are encouraged to keep up the good fight in a tough division; but they’ve been outscored by 36 runs and have the fifth-worst rotation ERA in baseball. Are they serious? Not yet.
For the Nationals, this could be a dry run for a first postseason chance, maybe this October.
To show how tantalizingly close this is to reality, if the season ended now, the Nats would be the highest seed in the NL playoffs. They’d not only avoid a one-game play-in between the two wild cards, they would also be rested for the Division Series and get to face that wild card winner the day after that team had used its best available starter to avoid elimination. MLB’s new postseason structure was built to hamstring wild-card teams and help division winners advance more easily to the League Championship Series. Who imagined that might apply to the Nats!
No one did, except perhaps Manager Davey Johnson, as recently as three months ago. On Opening Day, the Nats were considered, perhaps, the 12th best team in baseball and, if things worked out, the fifth best in the National League with a chance for that new wild card spot.
As this night showed, anything, no matter how novel in Washington’s long and mostly bitter baseball experience, might now apply to these young gifted winning Nats. And if not now, then it may apply fairly soon.
From shutout innings to 98 mph fastballs to gold shoes and teenage mistakes, this was a night for the Nats to get their first huge gulp of national exposure — and, perhaps for the first of many nights, shine in it.
For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/boswell