Vets help young Nats to keep focus on here and now
Despite having big league's best record, Washington not looking too far ahead
SAN FRANCISCO -- For a few moments after games and during long flights, Tyler Clippard admitted that the Nationals look ahead. It's hard not to.
The Nats (73-45) own the best record in baseball. The nation's capital is well on its way to hosting its first playoff-bound baseball team since 1933. Finally, there is a lot to look forward to in Washington right now -- not in the distant future, not working through the low Minor Leagues, years away from making an impact.
But those look-ahead moments are relatively few and far between. They never take place in the dugout, nor on the field. There may be a lot to look forward to, but these Nationals, as a group, have never seen any of it.
A few of the club's veterans have experienced pennant races, postseasons and World Series, so they know what lies ahead, and they've stressed to their younger teammates the importance of staying in the present -- of putting their "blinders" on, as Michael Morse said recently.
"When game time comes, those thoughts are long gone," Clippard said. "You're just really focused on what's going on in the moment. That's what's great about this team -- everyone just kind of bears down ... and gets the job done. Then we can talk about it after."
Some might view the Nats' overall lack of experience in a playoff push as a hindrance to their chances, but the players believe the club's years of futility might keep them fresh. So, too, might its influx of young talent.
"Compared to what we have gone through, this season's easy. It's fun," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "When you're coming to the park in June and you're 20 games out already, that's when it's hard. It's kind of a breath of fresh air, I guess you could say.
"Baseball is baseball," he added. "I think that's why you're seeing so many young guys come up now and have some success. Ultimately, if you can play, you can play."
And as the Nationals have shown thus far, they can play. Just as important to them is the fact that they can play together. Their talent is significantly more important than experience when it comes to winning games, and their chemistry might be a close second.
Washington has the former in spades, from a dominant rotation to a shutdown bullpen and a lineup that's only getting better as key players get healthy. But the Nats might have even more of the latter, which was the first thing catcher Kurt Suzuki noticed when he was acquired from the A's on Aug. 3.
"You just feel that vibe, that togetherness as a team. You can't describe it, but you can feel it," Suzuki said. "I think it's important. Obviously there's a lot of talent in this room. That's the main reason why the team is winning. ... But you get talent and chemistry -- it's a good mix."
"We won't win this thing playing individual baseball," added Mark DeRosa. "We'll win it as a team. I think that's what we've become, what we've evolved into, as this season has gone along."
That evolution has been sped up, manager Davey Johnson said, thanks to the presence of a few productive veterans.
Jayson Werth, when healthy, has returned to form after a disappointing 2011 season. Adam LaRoche has bounced back from an injury-riddled campaign with one of the best seasons of his nine-year career. DeRosa hasn't been able to contribute much on the field, but he's been an invaluable asset in the clubhouse.
"They've been awesome with a lot of the younger guys in here, like myself -- they're able to keep us focused on the task at hand," ace Stephen Strasburg said. "Just because you lose one [game] doesn't mean it's the end of the world. You have to go back out there and show up to play the next day."
Just listen to the veterans talk and you quickly realize where Strasburg has heard that before, or where someone like Morse learned to talk about putting his blinders on, and you can appreciate that vibe Suzuki immediately felt.
"We just keep hammering, hammering, hammering, and let's see what happens," LaRoche said. "I don't want to look up now and talk about [being] five, six [games ahead in the National League East] -- whatever it is. Let's win as many games as we can."
"This is the time of year when good teams start to mesh," added Werth. "The daily grind of spending 10 hours a day together either is wearing on you, or it's making you become a good team. Luckily for us, we've got a bunch of good guys. ... The rest of the stuff takes care of itself. We've just got to keep doing what we're doing. We're a good ballclub."
That's the story that's flown under the radar, with the bulk of the national attention focused squarely on Strasburg's right arm, which will be shut down at some point during the club's march toward the postseason. Strasburg's teammates may not fully understand it, but they've at least come to terms with the fact that it's going to happen.
Strasburg has bought into the head-down, blinders-on concept, too. He's not abandoning that idea, even if the curtain will fall on his season much sooner than it will for the rest of the Nationals, and his final start will likely come before the NL East is decided.
"The thing that we've got to go back to is it's one game at a time," Strasburg said. "We can't focus on the finish line when we've got  games left."
But in those fleeting moments when they do take a peek ahead, the Nats find there's a lot to look forward to, whether or not they've seen it before.
"We're getting into the fun part of the year," Johnson said. "Everything's magnified in a pennant race, and these guys are primed for it."