Nationals aren't surprised by their success
Washington's 54 days in first place this year already club record
WASHINGTON -- Their 64th game of the season ended Sunday with their third consecutive loss, but it mattered little to these Nationals. Manager Davey Johnson called a sweep at the hands of the 27-time champion Yankees, "A great experience for the ballclub." Players throughout the clubhouse emphasized it was just one series.
And for the first time in Washington, it was. Three consecutive losses did not bury these Nationals at the bottom of the National League East, as they may have in past seasons. Instead, Washington sat comfortably atop its division for the 54th day this season -- already more time than any other Nationals team in the club's eight-year history.
The youthful Nationals just may not know any better.
"We're young, we're inexperienced, and we're winning," said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the team's longest tenured player. "So we're learning on the fly."
Only four Nationals on the active roster have postseason experience, with Edwin Jackson's coming most recently as he started four games on the St. Louis Cardinals' World Series run last season. But Jackson sees more similarities in the Washington clubhouse to his 2008 Tampa Bay Rays.
Jackson started 31 games for that year's American League champion, a club that finished in last place in the AL East in all but one of its 10 previous seasons. The Nationals finished in last place in the NL East for five of their seasons in Washington, in fourth once, and third place last year, when they posted their first .500 record since 2005.
Now they are 38-26, four games ahead of the Atlanta Braves and nine games ahead of the Phillies, the latter the winner of the NL East in each of the past five seasons.
"Every single player believes that this team can win," said Jackson, who signed a one-year, $11 million contract in February. "Once you take the field with the mentality that you can win the games, you're going to play like it. You'll have that little extra cockiness that you need to win. You don't really care who's pitching, it doesn't really matter who's pitching. It doesn't really matter who you face. You just go out and win games."
Jackson saw that mindset emerge in Tampa Bay in the earliest days of the '08 season, aided by "a couple brawls here and there that just kind of set the tone that we're not going to be pushovers." He saw it with Washington in Spring Training.
A year after making a splash on the free-agent market by signing Jayson Werth, the Nationals were again active entering this season. They signed Jackson and traded for Gio Gonzalez, but mostly, they relied on what they already had.
Of the 25 players on Washington's active roster, 14 made their Major League debut with the Nationals. Closer Drew Storen will only add to that number once he returns from the 15-day disabled list around the All-Star break. Twelve of the players on Tampa Bay's '08 World Series roster broke through with the once-lowly Rays.
"It feels a lot better when it's your guys," said general manager Mike Rizzo, "and they're homegrown guys."
Rizzo considers Gonzalez a homegrown player, as well, since it took four players drafted and developed under Rizzo -- A.J. Cole, Derek Norris, Tom Milone and Brad Peacock -- to acquire the former All-Star from Oakland.
When Rizzo took over in the front office in 2006, he said he did not have a year in mind for Washington to start winning, but he had a plan, and it started with pitching. The marquee name was Stephen Strasburg, the first-overall Draft pick in '09, but '07 second-rounder Jordan Zimmermann also established himself as a top-of-the-rotation starter. Both underwent Tommy John surgery.
"We had a vision and a plan in mind, and we knew that with Step 1 -- a good, homegrown, swing-and-miss power rotation -- anything is possible. Without that, nothing is possible," Rizzo said. "Once we felt we had three or four guys that we really could count on to be cornerstones in our rotation, I felt, 'OK, now we can start thinking about bigger and better things.'"
Washington is relying on that rotation and succeeding despite injuries that have ravaged the bullpen and offense. Calls to the farm successfully sustained the Nationals' standing. Seven players -- Roger Bernadina, Ross Detwiler, Jesus Flores, Steve Lombardozzi, Ryan Mattheus, Jhonatan Solano and Craig Stammen -- spent part of last season together in Triple-A Syracuse. Lombardozzi also spent time with Tyler Moore at Double-A Harrisburg. Moore spent time at Double-A with Bryce Harper.
All have made significant contributions to the Nationals this season.
"It's kind of like home, you know?" said Moore, who debuted April 29 and hit .303 since.
The youth energizes the clubhouse, said Zimmerman, considered one of the older players on the squad, even though he is one of 13 Nationals 27 years old or younger. He debuted in September 2005, more than a month after Washington fumbled the lead it held atop the NL East for 53 days.
A Sunday that ended in a sweep marked Day 54 of '12, and it caught no one in the clubhouse by surprise.
"I think we saw it coming a couple years ago. We've had a great farm system. They've drafted well. We've been talented," Zimmerman said. "For them to come in and contribute day-in and day-out at a young age, it makes you look around and think, 'Yeah, we can do this.'"
Steven Miller is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.