The Washington Times - April 23, 2012, 09:39AM

The Washington Nationals wake up this morning in San Diego as the team with the second-best record in baseball. It’s no coincidence they’ll also be the team with the best staff ERA in baseball and the one who’s held opposing hitters to the lowest average (.202), on-base percentage (.269) and slugging percentage (.293) in the major leagues.

As the Nationals get an off-day out west, here are a few thoughts, observations and left overs after they finished up an 8-2  homestand and prepare for their first west coast trip of the season…


– Manager Davey Johnson became the 38th manager in major league history to reach the 1,200-win mark. Johnson, who playfully chided the team’s PR staff Sunday morning for forgetting to mention his big milestone, noticed the number as he was scanning through the team’s news clips Saturday evening. Ian Desmond’s sacrifice fly to center field that brought home Wilson Ramos with the winning run on Saturday and bumped him off the 1,199 mark.

“The only reason I noticed it was because I read the clips,” Johnson said. “And I thought, ‘Well, what took me so long?’”

Johnson is in his 15th year of managing so he did the math and figured that wasn’t quite enough wins per year to satisfy him — but he conceded the 10 1/2-year hiatus he took between major league managing gigs probably didn’t help. Neither did finishing the 2011 season with a losing record (40-43). The Nationals’ hot start, though, has helped him rectify that (he’s now at 52-47) and he’ll reach another milestone on Tuesday when he manages his 100th game from the Nationals’ dugout. Only one team Johnson has managed from the start of the season to the end of it has ever finished with a below-.500 record, the 1999 Los Angeles Dodgers.

As the 1,200-win mark was discussed Sunday morning, it was pointed out to Johnson that if the Nationals have an extremely good year, he could also see win No. 1,300 this season. 

“I think I’m on the pace,” Johnson said, his team currently winning at a clip that will see them win 121 games this season if they keep it up. “I’ve gotta step it up.”

– Speaking of the Nationals’ record… Certainly there’s always a chance they can prove plenty of people wrong, but it’s likely going to be difficult for the Nationals to maintain a .750 winning percentage throughout the season and finish with 121 victories this season. Good teams are built on pitching and defense, they get the hits when they need them and, of course, they get a little bit of luck. The Nationals’ pythagorean winning percentage, a projection of what a team’s record should be based on runs scored and runs allowed, is 10-6 — meaning they’ve beat the odds in at least two of their wins this season already. 

Considering the Nationals are 6-2 in one-run games, have already played four extra-inning games and are 3-1 in those contests, it’s not surprising in the least to know that their pythagorean win percentage is less than what their actual win percentage is.  

They’ve played just 1/10 of their season and they’ve gotten to that 12-4 record largely because of exceptional pitching (they’ve allowed the fewest home runs in the majors at 3) and defense. Their offense has lagged (they rank 20th in average in MLB and only seven teams have hit fewer home runs (10) than them). But they haven’t allowed all of the close games to take a mental toll thus far. 

“We’re not where we need to be, but we’re going in the right direction,” Johnson said. “Every day another guy gets feeling a little bit better offensively… and we’re getting contributions from a lot of people. 

“These two weeks, we’ve had a lot of close games. That’s good for when you’re up-and-coming. When you weather those tight ones, whether on the road, (in extra innings), bunch of one-run games, that fire’s hot. It makes that metal harder. Having this many early and coming out of it good is a good sign of the makeup of the team.”

Johnson and the rest of his team have been quick to point out how young this season is, how much longer the road they have in front of them is, but it’s impossible for them not to notice what’s going on around them.

As they’ve been taking advantage of a schedule that hasn’t faced them with a single team that finished 2011 with an over-.500 record, and won’t until they visit the equally hot-starting Dodgers this weekend, the team that’s been the class of their division for the last five years is struggling to find itself. The Philadelphia Phillies are 7-9, in last place in the division this late in a season for the first time since 2005, and just put Cliff Lee on the disabled list with an oblique strain. Meanwhile, the Nationals took two from the Miami Marlins and their closest competition in the division right now is the 10-6 Atlanta Braves. 

“I expect us to contend and we’re contending,” Johnson said. “It’s a long haul — and there’ll be ups and downs — but I like the resiliency. We’ve had some bad days and we’ve come back and played good. We’re not going unnoticed. We no longer slide under the radar.” 

That much is certainly true, especially judging by the reaction from the visitors’ clubhouse this weekend after the Nationals threw Ross Detwiler and Stephen Strasburg at the Marlins in the first two games of the series with what seems to be their typically dominant results.

“That’s a very underrated team,” said Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen. “They’ve got a good ball club. They’ve got a good pitching staff. They’re doing the right things. I think Mr. Rizzo did a good job putting that club together. It shouldn’t be a surprise for people. I said in spring training when we faced them, ‘This ballclub is going to be pretty good.’ They have a chance to be good for a long time.”

“Before they had two or three (starters) who were pretty tough and another two you thought were pretty beatable,” said Marlins infielder Donnie Murphy. “I was telling somebody, before, when we came here we normally put up runs and we normally hit pretty good. But that pitching staff, they’re going to be tough, and I think they’re going to be around all year.”

– That somewhat cushy schedule the Nationals have been taking advantage of? It’s going to get a little tougher soon. Starting this weekend with the Dodgers, the Nationals will play nine games against teams that finished the 2011 season with 82 wins or more, including the NL West champion Arizona Diamondbacks and, of course, the Phillies the first weekend in May. 

And starting with the third week in May, the Nationals schedule is stocked with tough opponents. They’ll play five straight series against divisional opponents, starting with a road trip to Philadelphia, Atlanta and Miami and culminating with a homestand that brings the Braves and the Mets to Washington. From there they’ll start an extremely difficult interleague schedule against the AL East, traveling to Boston and Toronto, and then welcoming the Yankees and the Rays to Nationals Park.

All of that means the Nationals must continue to capitalize when they can — and that makes the upcoming six-game west coast swing pretty important, particularly the three games against San Diego in Petco Park, where the Nationals’ pitching staff should truly be able to shine.

“There’s no easy road trip or easy game,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. “But the way we’ve been playing at home, and obviously the start we’ve gotten off to, I think it would be nice to go out there and continue doing what we’re doing. Our goal is to win every series, whether it’s three out of four, two out of three, whatever. I think that’s what we want to do everywhere we go. 

“Obviously it’s not going to happen all year — that would be the best season ever — but we understand. We know it’s tough to go on the road and play out there on the west coast. I think we enjoy it… We’re looking to go out there and compete and keep doing what we’re doing.”