- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 31, 2008

Send out the thank you notes. Stop shaving or using makeup on weekends. Bag all that lovey-dovey stuff.

The honeymoon is over.

For more than three years, the Nationals and their fans have reveled in the simple fact of major league baseball being back in town after that unforgivable 33-year hiatus.

Now, though, it’s about time to eschew euphoria in favor of sneaking a peek at where this ambitious ballclub stands. And despite all the positive vibes about benevolent ownership, intelligent baseball leadership and building a franchise the “right” way, the Nats are still losers.

Let’s look at the record as Al Smith, the 1928 presidential loser, not the former outfielder, used to say.

For three months in the spring and early summer of 2005, the newly hatched Nats were golden overachievers who somehow sprinted to a 50-31 record and into first place in the National League East as the ancient stands at RFK Stadium surged and swayed.

Since then, the news has been mostly bad. Going into last night’s game at Arizona, the Nats were 198-262 over the last 2 3/4 seasons, a non-winning percentage of .430.

If you’re looking for disturbing comparisons, the unlamented Senators went 284-360 for their last four seasons, a .441 pace. More of the same, anyone?

The two versions of the Senators collected just three pennants and one World Series title over 71 seasons, marking our proud nation’s capital as a baseball graveyard. And so far with the Nationals, no risings from the dead have been spotted, worse luck.

There are, as always, mitigating circumstances. Some guys haven’t delivered on their promise and promises. The Nats have endured much more than their share of injuries on the way to a 23-32 start this season. And some moves have backfired worse than a 1978 jalopy, such as the unfortunate dispatching of Ryan Church and Brian Schneider to the Mets for Lastings Milledge, who has been merely so-so so far. Ditto with Elijah Dukes, another talented outfielder whose main achievement has been staying out of trouble off the field.

Although such bumps in the road don’t bother good teams, the Nats are looking like anything but. Again, let’s do the math. To finish 81-81, which seemed a reasonable offseason goal, this club would have to go 58-49 the rest of the way. It’s possible. It isn’t likely.

There is no need here to direct digits at culprits because even good people can’t always control events. As far as we are given to know, Jim Bowden remains a high-rolling, cagy GM and Manny Acta a knowledgeable and sensitive manager. The club’s scouts and minor league mentors have produced a batch of prime prospects, particularly on the mound. But the Ross Detwilers, Josh Smokers, Collin Balesters, Justin Maxwells and Kory Castos aren’t ready yet, and it would be a mistake to rush them.

It’s unsettling, too, to realize that third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, usually identified as “the face of the franchise,” is about the only regular who appears certain to remain in place four or five years from now - and the Z-man’s offensive production has dropped appreciably from his 110-RBI rookie season of 2006.

When Bowden traded for infielder Felipe Lopez and Austin Kearns at midseason of 2006, they were identified as “core players” around whom a team could build. Instead both have flopped badly enough at the plate so that their futures with Washington might not exceed that of George W. Bush.

First baseman Nick Johnson looked like a linchpin until his old injury jinx found him anew. John Patterson’s pitching arm and elbow removed him from the scene. Schneider, one of the best catchers around, was replaced by Paul Lo Duca, who probably couldn’t throw out a snail trying to steal. Chad Cordero, the thrill-a-minute closer, has run into arm problems that frequently are an occupational hazard.

Yet there is still reason for die-hard types to pay attention to the Nats. Every time a tough chance rockets his way, Zimmerman is a threat to make people forget about Brooks Whatshisname. Wily Mo Pena could hit a ball as far as Dumfries, provided he hits it at all. Jesus Flores resembles an All-Star catcher in waiting. John Lannan and Jason Bergmann have been spectacular at times on the mound.

And, oh yes, we can all soak in the expensive splendor of Nationals Park, even if you can’t see the Capitol from most seats.

For the time being, then, we’ll have to take our baseball pleasure in small doses while we wait, again, for a Washington team to enrapture us en masse. And let’s always remember the biggest truth of all: Mediocre baseball, no matter how aggravating, is better than no baseball.



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