A baseball team’s season seldom changes radically on one thrilling play or melodramatic game, except in fiction. But big league teams really can transform the trajectory of their year over short chunks of time. You don’t go from lousy to good in a day, but you can in a week. And the Nats, with their sixth win in seven games, may have just done it.
Eight days ago, the Nationals looked helpless against the Braves. Then Jordan Zimmermann and Dan Haren beat Atlanta back-to-back to stop what had been a nine-game losing streak over two seasons to Atlanta.
Now, there’s symmetry. Last week, Zimmermann and Haren won on Wednesday and Thursday. This week, they did it again, completing a brief, clean two-game sweep of the American League champion Tigers with their second bracingly taut win in less than 24 hours, this time 5-4.
From sloppy, scatterbrained and inept with both glove and bat in April, the Nats suddenly find themselves blooming nicely in May. The offense still sputters, but confidence and the first hints of relaxation are finally back.
“We’ve come a long way in a week,” said Haren, who lasted six innings against a fierce Tigers lineup despite poor stuff. “Zimmermann pitched a great game when we really needed it against the Braves and things have turned since then.
“We’re still not really at full strength. We’ve gone through a really tough part of our schedule and look where we are,” Haren said of the club that has played 13 of its past 16 against the contending Braves, Reds, Cards and Tigers, plus three against the winning Pirates. “We’re headed in the right direction.”
On the game’s final play, closer Rafael Soriano, who’s been on the mound to end all of the Nats’ six recent wins, watched as a long blast to center by Prince Fielder died on the warning track. Rather than bemoan a two-run homer to put Detroit ahead, the Nationals could “untuck,” instead. That’s Soriano’s career-long ritual after a save, yanking out his jersey like a workman kicking back for the first cold one after a long day.
Already, Ian Desmond, Denard Span, Chad Tracy, Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche have taken to untucking, too. Rituals have to be born, not imposed and, just as the Nats needed a stabilizing veteran, Soriano has brought his implacable demeanor to the ninth inning. His stuff is merely quite good, with late movement and his command usually excellent, but it is his audacity that clocks 100 mph.
Soriano looks mean. He isn’t. He looks like nothing bothers him. And apparently it doesn’t. Fielder had faced him four times previously and hit two home runs. Was Soriano worried when the blast left the bat?
“No, not at all,” he said.
Many Nats now wear a shirt, meant to embrace their new front-runner status, that says, “If You’re Scared, Get A Dog.” Soriano can do without canine assistance.
“I have a dog. He’s eight and he’s still not potty trained,” said Haren. “He’s ruined thousands of dollars of furniture.” As he laughed at his dog story, music blared again in a locker room that is now far looser, more untucked and perhaps less frightened by high expectations than it was in April.
“That reminds me of Tampa. A lot of guys did that,” said Soriano. Those Devil Rays untucked to a World Series with Soriano leading the league with 45 saves.
“It’s fun. I hope people don’t take it the wrong way,” said tucked-up type Ryan Zimmerman, who had three hits and keyed two early rallies that knocked out 6-foot-8 Tiger right-hander Doug Fister. “People think Soriano is standoffish, does his own thing. He’s just the opposite in here with us.
“People [outside the team] automatically make assumptions. We went through that with [Bryce] Harper when he got here. Soriano’s had [10 Nats] over to his house [his offseason home in Atlanta, for dinner]. He’s already talked to me about hitting — not telling me how to hit, just trying to help. He’s a great person.
“Pretty good pitcher, too.”
Teams can’t buy a personality in the offseason. You can’t order up chemistry. Each year’s team forms a distinctly different personality. The Nats took a while. Free agents Haren and Soriano had ugly first-week implosions in Cincinnati — a 15-0 loss in a Haren start and a blown save by Soriano. Denard Span, who had four hits, including a double and triple against the Tigers, has let his cockiness come out around the edges, catching Fielder’s last blast nonchalantly at his waist like a popup.
“We all have track records. We stay grounded whether we are going good or bad,” said Zimmerman. “We know LaRoche isn’t going to hit .150 all year. I’m not going to hit .200. Harper won’t hit .400. Well, maybe.”
This Nationals season will have other chunks of time when the plot changes dramatically. Things don’t just improve then simply stay that way. But with 13 of their next 16 games against the injured or struggling Cubs, Dodgers, Padres and Phils, it’s unlikely they’ll revert quickly.
LaRoche, one of the coldest hitters in all of baseball, has now reached base in 13 of his past 19 plate appearances. Zimmerman, the other slumping heart-of-the-lineup piece, has scored six runs in the past four games. But neither has shown any power yet. Until they perform, the offense will look fitful at best.
“I like the progress we’re making,” said Manager Davey Johnson. “We’re not there yet. Zimmerman and LaRoche, they’re real close. One more day [off], then Jayson Werth will probably be back in the lineup.”
Johnson ticks off the items: strong pitching, good defense, timely hitting. “This is what we did last year,” he says.
Not exactly. Not yet. Until the past eight days, the Nats looked like they needed to buy 25 dogs to get over their trepidation in the spotlight. And, with their pressing at-bats and nervous errors in the field, they seemed in desperate need of a collective exhale and a group untuck.
Now, they’re showing signs of turning slowly into the ’13 Nationals, kin but not copies of ’12. April was a false spring. They’re making better use of May.
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/