Air in Nats' camp filled with optimism
Players bonding well as club looks to transfer spring success to season
JUPITER, Fla. -- Last Tuesday, the Nationals sent most of their Minor Leaguers to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to play the Orioles, while their Major League players -- such as left fielder Adam Dunn, center fielder Lastings Milledge and left-hander John Lannan -- were left behind at Space Coast Stadium to work out.
Ninety minutes after working on their hitting, defense and pitching, the players at Space Coast Stadium decided to play Cheerios Poker. In this game, the players use the cereal instead of money when they make their wagers.
There's left-hander Scott Olsen standing up and dealing the cards, while outfielder Elijah Dukes is confident that he will win every hand. There's Adam Dunn wearing his hat backwards and just having fun playing the game.
The players play Cheerios Poker for the next three hours.
It's only Spring Training, but the 2009 Nationals are showing they are bonding, and they hope the camaraderie will carry over on the field as well.
The Nationals, at 12-14-2, are in the midst of their best Spring Training since 2004, when they were known as the Expos.
"It's good to have fun, but we know what the main objective is," Dunn said. "There is fine line [when it comes to having fun]. So far, everyone has been working hard this spring and having fun, too. That makes it that much better. By playing loose, you play better. "
Last year, there was hardly any camaraderie amongst the players. The team lost 102 games, and many players found themselves on the disabled list for longer than they played. In fact, Nationals players missed a combined 1,237 games due to injuries in 2008.
Some of the players didn't work as hard as they should have. Milledge acknowledged that he was one of the guys that should have done better in terms of his work ethic. But things are different now. Milledge is often asking first-base coach Marquis Grissom and outfield instructor Devon White for extra work in the outfield.
"We have more of a winning attitude this year than we did last year," Milledge said. "I think we work harder this year than we did last year. I'm not saying we didn't take it seriously last year, but I think a lot of guys are more serious at improving their game. I don't know why. But it seems like everybody has a much better work ethic, including myself."
Manager Manny Acta believes the change in attitude occurred when Washington signed Dunn to a two-year, $20 million contract and left-hander Joe Beimel to a one-year, $2 million deal. Dunn is expected to be the run producer the Nationals have lacked over the past two years. Beimel will be the eighth-inning reliever that has been missing since Joel Hanrahan became the closer last July.
Acta said the reaction to both signings sent a strong message to the players that the organization is serious about winning.
"The optimism among the players is a lot better because of the moves we have made," Acta said. "The guys are healthy -- all of them. It has really picked up the mood. The guys feel much better and optimistic."
Besides his bat and hard work on the field, Dunn gets a lot of credit for changing the attitude in the clubhouse. He's often joking around with his teammates and the media.
"He has helped change the attitude because he such a presence," right fielder Austin Kearns said. "He is an outgoing guy and funny. He'll crack on himself as easily as he would on somebody else."
Case in point: On March 18, Dunn replaced an injured Kevin Youkilis at first base in the World Baseball Classic, and it proved costly for Team USA.
Dunn made two errors in a 10-6 loss to Venezuela. In the bottom of the second inning, Dunn threw the ball past catcher Chris Iannetta, which allowed a run to score. Six innings later, Dunn couldn't field a ground ball hit by Carlos Guillen.
"That was a debacle. That's all I could say," Dunn said. "I could tell you a million reasons on what went wrong. The throwing error, that was a split-finger [fastball] that went bad."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.