NEW YORK — When Drew Storen struck out Lucas Duda late Tuesday night, he earned his 36th save of the season and the Nationals’ 69th victory of the 2011 season. With 15 games to spare, this year’s version of the Nationals has matched the win total of their immediate predecessors. If they can win even one more game over the next two weeks, they’ll be, numerically, better than they were last year.
They’re 10 wins better than the Nationals of 2008 and 2009, and with four more wins they’ll be as good (in the win column anyway) as the 2007 team that won 73 games and was the last Nationals squad to finish anywhere but last in the National League East.
They’re also now just two games back of the Mets for third place in the division.
So, in the grand scheme of things, what does all this mean? In a simple way of thinking, it essentially means that all the progress they’ve talked about, all the differences they’ve said there are in this year’s team compared to years past, are real.
“I think it’s taking a step forward,” Storen said. “In this league it’s tough, especially in this division, to just take a giant step forward. It’s a process. We talk about it all year. To get to where we were last year and to see the results, I guess, of what we’ve always talked about — things being different in the clubhouse.”
Even if the number in the win column remains exactly the same as it was last season, Storen said, there’s no question the Nationals have made progress.
“Oh yeah, no doubt,” he said. “The feeling in the clubhouse is a lot different and I just think the camaraderie is there. It’s tough with the type of teams we play day in, day out… There’s been a big improvement, regardless of what our record says.”
What’s more important to the Nationals in the season’s final two weeks, however, is continuing that progress. There are still plenty of things they need to see accomplished this season: the continued rehabilitation processes of Chien-Ming Wang and Stephen Strasburg, the major league development of Tom Milone and Brad Peacock, the improvement of Michael Morse in left field and Chris Marrero at first base, the acclimation of Steve Lombardozzi to the major league level, and more on a list that could go on for days.
They’re also still in the running to finish over .500 for the season, which would be a monumental step for the organization and the first time any Nationals team has done it. They’ll need to go 12-3 to make it happen, but it’s still technically a possibility. If they do that, then they’ll be in contention for another organizational first: third place in the division.
If they ultimately finish the year in third place — the highest any Nationals team will have finished a season since the team relocated to Washington — it will be another mile marker to prove the progress they already feel they’re making and have made. It won’t, however, define them.
“I just want to win,” Storen said. “I don’t care where we stand. I think that stuff takes care of itself. I think the biggest thing for me is just maximizing what we’ve got. We have a lot of young guys that came up and if we end the year on a good note… yeah, it’d be great to be in third place and all that but if we’re just winning and doing the right things and playing the game the right way that says more than, ‘Hey, we were in third place.’ The fact of the matter is, at the end of the day, you want to be in first place. I think it’s just a matter of taking the strides that we need to to set yourself up for next year.”
“I’m not really concerned (about the standings),” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “If you can’t finish first or be the wild card, I’m not losing any sleep over trying to finish third. There’s a lot more that has to go on here… I’m pleased with the way it’s going but as far as, do I want to finish third? I want to finish as high as I can finish but it’s not a goal of mine.”
“I’m not looking at (our win total equaling last year) at all,” he continued. “I’m looking at progress and how we’re doing and if we’re moving forward. Hopefully we’ll solidify some decisions these last few weeks, make it easier next year.”