Philadelphia Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel sees reasons why brighter days may be ahead for the Nationals. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
Columnist

All week the Washington Nationals have talked about wanting to “close the gap” between themselves at the bottom of the NL East and the Philadelphia Phillies at the top. They’ve listened to Jayson Werth all spring, trying to pick up tips on the Phils’ admirable hardball ways.

After going 21-51 against Philadelphia the past four seasons combined, the Nats looked at the teams’ first series of the year as a measuring stick, beating the Phils, 7-4, Tuesday behind Werth’s double and homer before falling, 3-2, the next night after a ninth-inning rally against Roy “Doc” Halladay fell short.

But who cares what the Nationals think about themselves? Everyone loves what they see in the mirror. However, what the Phils think about the Nats might actually matter.

In particular, Manager Charlie Manuel’s opinion counts. If you ever read a statement from Manuel that is grammatically perfect, then he has been grievously misquoted. But his “baseball opinion” is one of the game’s most respected. And he’s that rare, old-school skipper who’ll sit in the dugout for an hour analyzing every player on both teams.

The Nats think they are close to being pretty good. And they sell that theory. Manuel doesn’t buy it. He knows that for every Jimmy Rollins who’s a star at 22, there are two Chase Utleys or Ryan Howards who don’t break out big until 26. But he still likes what he sees.

“The Nationals are a couple, three years away,” Manuel said before the Phillies won Thursday’s series finale, 4-0. “But they are determined to get it right. They have a plan now. They have definitely improved already. They’ve always played us a lot of close games until the late innings. But then their defense, and [mental] mistakes, they’d just absolutely give us . . . [pause] . . . Let’s say if you stayed with ’em, they’d usually beat themselves. But that’s changing.

“They’ve played every team in the division already. They play the Braves better now; the Mets and Marlins, too. And it looks like they play us better.”

The manager’s central insight, however, is that the Nats used to have few players with any chance of ever being standouts. Now, as he evaluates Jordan Zimmermann, Danny Espinosa, Ian Desmond, Drew Storen and Wilson Ramos, Manuel repeats: “He has a chance to be real good. . . . The Nationals don’t know yet which of them will work out. But that’s what you want when you are building a team: players everywhere who have a chance to become something special. And some of ’em will be, too.

“When [Stephen] Strasburg gets back — and almost all of those Tommy John [surgery] guys do come back — he’s going to be a big star. By his last game last year against us, he’d already picked up another pitch: a cutter at 92. So he’s a fast learner.”

This week, two-time Cy Young winner Halladay told Manuel that the game had changed in recent years. A big fastball, even 95-plus mph, wasn’t enough any more, not without command.

“Doc said, ‘They make me pay in the middle of the plate,’ ” Manuel said. “Today’s hitters will barrel up that 96, even if they are a little late on it, and hit it over the opposite-field fence, especially in our yard. Watch Werth, Howard and Ryan Zimmerman do it.”

Strasburg already had that superior command. But Zimmermann doesn’t yet. And a big chunk of the Nats’ future depends on whether he develops into a No. 2 or 3 starter.

“Zimmermann has real good stuff,” said Manuel, who then held his gnarled hands apart to show a 20-inch-wide plate — 16 inches, plus half-a-ball’s width on either side for the edges. “But he still leaves too many in that middle third and that’s what the good hitters are waiting for. Will he learn how to stay outta there? Probably. Most do.”

Thursday night, Zimmerman was perfect against the Phils for five innings, hung a curve over the heart of the plate for a homer, allowed only one earned run in seven innings, but saw two errors lead to three unearned runs as a Cliff Lee three-hitter showed who’s still the boss.

As for Bryce Harper? “Oh, I’ve seen his swing,” said Manuel, rolling his eyes, impressed. But he’s in an early Class-A ball slump. “Probably be good for him,” Manuel said. “Remember, it takes time.”

The Nats often forget, or perhaps soft-pedal, how long it takes talent to mature. Manuel’s “couple, three years” estimate is realism, not criticism. Desmond, 25, is a perfect example. He made 34 errors last season and two Wednesday to help the Phils win. Will he improve? Or is he locked in his bad habits?

“On his night, he’s everything you could want in a shortstop. But he needs to get more consistent,” said Manuel, who sends young Phils infielders to his coach Sam Perlozzo, the ex-Orioles manager, to get the excess pizzazz out of their games.

“I don’t see why Desmond can’t improve,” Perlozzo said. He gives examples of young Orioles — both Brian Roberts and Jerry Hairston — whom he took to the woodshed, with good results afterward.

“Sometimes you’ve got to say, ‘Keep your mouth shut, son, listen to me and I’ll make you a million dollars.’ Except it’s really $10 million now,” says Perlozzo laughing. “At this level, flash kills you. You need minimum excess motion, a quiet glove. If your ‘basic’ is really good, that’s the key.”

When the Phils look at Espinosa, they see those sound qualities, plus power at the plate. “He will surprise you with his strength,” Manuel said.

When they see Ramos drive a ball to the opposite field off the right field wall, Phils coaches nod appreciatively. “You can’t have too many good young catchers,” said Manuel, who knows the Nats have three.

Fans want results yesterday. They pay, so it’s their right. That’s why crowds this week were sparse and may remain so. But men who run teams see the long process.

“In Baltimore, we had to replace four or five guys every year. When you’re always patching, it’s tough,” Perlozzo said. “Now, they’ve had the patience to develop young pitching. . . .

“The Nats looked like they were patching, not planning. Now, they have a direction. You can see if things work out, they’re going to be pretty good.”

Manuel and Perlozzo have reason to wish it weren’t so. If, this week, they see glimpses of what the Nats might be in “a couple, three years,” it might even be true.