DENVER — The Nationals wake up this morning, having been in first place in the National League East for 80 days.
Over the first 71 games of the 2012 season, the Washington Nationals have played a solid brand of baseball. They’re a team built on pitching with an offense that has yet to truly click and still holds a 3.5 game lead over their closest divisional competitors despite a 3-7 slide of late.
When utility man Mark DeRosa rejoined the team on Monday after missing almost two full months with a left oblique strain, his evaluation of the team was this: “Same as always: unbelievable pitching, score enough runs to win games. It doesn’t matter. I don’t care how you win. It’s all about amassing as many wins as possible.”
So far the Nationals have done a good job of that. They’re 41-30. Their 4-2 loss to the Rockies marked their first of 33 games that wasn’t played against a team from the NL East or AL East. In that 32-game span, the Nationals were a respectable 18-14.
“I think we proved not only to ourselves, but I think we proved to everybody in baseball that we’re an up-and-coming young team, and we can go toe-to-toe with the best in baseball,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “I think that’s what we’ve come through this whole thing with: We can hold our own against the powerful American League East. That’s not a surprise to me.”
So there the Nationals were, a tough stretch in their rearview, facing the woebegone Rockies and knowing they should be able to leave Coors Field with several victories by the time their wheels go up for Atlanta on Thursday night. And yet they fell flat.
“We’ve got too much talent not to be swinging the bats better,” Johnson said after the Nationals’ loss.
Since their 14-4 start, the Nationals are 27-26. There have been times when they’re a whole lot better than that (like their 9-2 stretch to open June) and times when they’re a whole lot worse (like the 3-7 funk they’re in right now). They rose to the occasion in Boston and Toronto, they’ve played on big stages and enjoyed the growing atmosphere that each game in first place brings them.
But not every game is going to have the intensity of the three they played in Boston did. Not every game is going to have the headline match-ups and playoff implications that their series’ against the Yankees and Orioles and Blue Jays did. And with everything seemingly alternating between running like a well-oiled machine and sputtering, the Nationals have to be weary of guarding against a let down.
“I speak for myself,” said shortstop Ian Desmond, “but I know that when the situation and the game’s on the line, or we’re playing a first-place team, or facing an ace, I feel like I rise up to the occasion. I feel like I really bear down. But there’s a certain adrenaline that comes with this game and you’ve got to find that focus.
“I’m working on it, and I feel like I’m getting better at it, but I can’t fake it. I can’t fake the adrenaline.”
Desmond was clear that he wasn’t speaking for his teammates when he said it, but it was an interesting take and a potential hurdle the Nationals will face if they intend to carry a several-game lead for the rest of the season. They’re going to face more bad teams and the mark of a good team is the one that rolls over the bad ones the way they should.
So far this season, the Nationals are 14-10 against teams that right now are below .500. But they’re going to play more of them as the season goes on. They’re going to have to make sure they’re up in Houston and Milwaukee, or for when the Rockies come to D.C., or the Brewers, or the Cubs. Beating up on their division is key, but so is taking advantage of wins that should be easier than most. They’ve got three more nights and three more starting pitchers ripe for the raking to try and increase that margin here in Colorado.