The Washington Times - April 9, 2012, 06:48AM

CHICAGO — As the Nationals packed up inside the visitors’ clubhouse at Wrigley Field Sunday afternoon, they did so in the usual quiet that blankets a loss. But after a weekend in which they were fortunate to find late hits and walk away with two victories, there wasn’t all that much to be down about. The 2012 season is three games old. The Nationals have won two of them.

So as the team turns the page and returns to the National League East with three games against the undefeated New York Mets at Citi Field starting Monday night, here are a few thoughts, observations and leftovers from the opening weekend in Chicago:


– Adam LaRoche’s power stroke has returned and that is great news for the Nationals. LaRoche’s career in Washington to this point has been filled with more starts and stops than D.C. traffic at rush hour. But with his June labrum surgery as well as a bone bruise in his left foot in his past, LaRoche is finally showing the player the Nationals were hoping they’d get when they signed him before the 2011 season.

In two days, LaRoche has hit two home runs that even he admits he doesn’t think he could have gotten to last year. His torn labrum just stole all that power. Balls that he felt he was squaring up were landing as harmless fly outs in the outfield. 

When the question was posed around the clubhouse this weekend as to how good it is to see him find that power stroke so early, the first word out of almost everyone’s mouth was “healthy.” He’s finally healthy, and he’s showing it. 

And it’s very important for the Nationals that he stays that way. With Michael Morse still working his way back from a lat strain and Jayson Werth yet to get his first hit of 2012, the rest of the middle of their lineup is something of a question mark. LaRoche’s presence, especially as a left-hander, will be just as necessary for the Nationals offense to improve as is the continued maturation and improvement of Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos.

– One thing may have gotten overlooked in the shuffle of the Nationals’ two dramatic comebacks this weekend was the work of their bullpen. Sure, the runs they allowed Sunday in the eighth loomed large after LaRoche’s two-run homer in the ninth, but before that they’d thrown 7 1/3 scoreless innings and the Nationals likely don’t win either of the first two games without them.

It’s mentioned a lot how far the bullpen has come since the 2009 unit was statistically the worst in the league but it’s mentioned that often because it’s true. And performances like Craig Stammen’s on Saturday serve as just another example. 

Stammen, the man who likely made the Nationals’ roster because his good friend John Lannan was sent to Triple-A on the spring’s final day, came on in relief of Gio Gonzalez in the fourth inning and got the Nationals to the seventh inning with zeroes. Stammen has gone from being a member of the Nationals’ rotation, the Triple-A rotation and now back to the major league bullpen. But through it he’s discovered more about the pitcher he is and he’s as comfortable in the role he’s playing now as he has ever been.

Part of that is maturation and Stammen knowing what advice he needs to listen to and retain and what advice he can disregard but he’s also worked to strengthen himself mentally on the mound. Stammen’s generally a no-nonsense guy. As he put it, “I’d always been one of them guys that, I don’t need a shrink, I don’t need any of this method training, I can figure it out. I’m not an idiot.” But a few mental keys that he and his college coach went over this offseason have helped him to maintain his focus on the mound and concentrate on “moments of awareness.”

“When I’m making the pitch with guys on second and third, the only moment that I’m worried about is that one pitch and that’s really the only thing I can control,” Stammen explained. “I can’t control how they got on second and third, but I can control that certain pitch and how I execute it.”

Because he still has an option available, it’s difficult to say how long Stammen will last on the major league roster this time around but there’s no question that he’s earned his right to be there.

– Jayson Werth’s 2012 is likely not off to the start statistically that he’d like (he’s 0-for-10 with five strikeouts and three walks). But unlike last year where Werth never fully felt like he’d found his swing, he maintains that he’s feeling good with where he’s at this season, he’s just been somewhat snakebit.

“I swung the bat good the first day,” Werth said. “I feel like I hit two balls pretty well, but in the conditions, didn’t come up with anything. Hit a ball (Sunday) a guy dives for and makes a good play on me. It’s part of the game.”

It’s worth mentioning that Werth has been up in some very big situations already this season and he’s worked walks in almost all of them — at least an indication that he’s seeing the ball well and identifying pitches well. 

– Remember the leadoff single Ian Desmond ripped off Ryan Dempster’s first pitch to open the 2012 season? Well Desmond hit it off the end of the bat and when he got to first, while second baseman Danny Espinosa was at the plate, Desmond was trying to get the umpires to take the ball out of play. He thought he’d cut the ball and didn’t want Espinosa to suffer from a damaged ball being used.

They eventually got it out of play, but there wasn’t a cut on it. Instead there was a message inscribed from actor Bill Murray (who threw out the first pitch on Opening Day) to Dempster. “Good luck, Ryan” it read. Murray, a Chicago native, had left the ball as a keepsake for Dempster and he (we’re assuming mistakenly) used it for the game. Either way, it worked out well for Desmond, who started with that hit and added two more on the day, including the game winner. He planned to return the ball to Dempster.

Desmond, by the way, is hitting .385 (5-for-13) with a .429 on-base percentage through the season’s first three games.

– If all goes according to plan, the Nationals will have a roster move (or moves) to make this week as they welcome Michael Morse and Rick Ankiel back to the starting lineup. The Nationals have a few ways they could go with the moves but one person who could be indirectly affected is Steve Lombardozzi.

Lombardozzi, who put together a superb spring and left no doubts he belongs at the major league level, has gotten just two at-bats through the Nationals first three games. The main condition for the Nationals keeping Lombardozzi at the big league level was that manager Davey Johnson had to be able to see a way to get him 300-plus at-bats as a utility player.

So far, he’s played in just one game, pinch hitting and staying in to play left field on Saturday. When Morse or Ankiel return, through no fault of his own, Lombardozzi might be a candidate to be optioned to the minor leagues simply so he doesn’t collect dust sitting on the end of the Nationals’ bench. 

All of the reasons for Lombardozzi making the team still hold firm (he’s a solid backup at second, short and third, he can play left field and he’s a switch hitter, which Johnson find extremely valuable for late-game matchups) but if he’s not getting the playing time they might decide he’d be better off in the minor leagues for the time being.

That being said, it would leave them thin on their infield defense. Mark DeRosa can play first, third and second base but it’d be interesting to see if Johnson would try him at shortstop in the event Desmond needed a day off. Espinosa could be the primary backup at shortstop, but Johnson has said the team would not use him as a fill-in for just a game or two, he would only play there in the event Desmond was out for an extended period due to injury.