SNYDER: Nats fans can look at glass as half-full
Fans who began following the Nationals last year, when Stephen Strasburg swept through baseball like Halley’s Comet, have a rosier outlook than fans who began following in 2005 when the team relocated to Washington, where it has never produced a winning record but twice managed 100-loss seasons.
The Nats’ first-half performance excites newcomers more than long-sufferers because the latter are conditioned to losing, just like the team. A .500 record at the break just reminds veteran fans of the inaugural season in D.C., the Nats’ high-water mark of 81-81.
Diehards know there’s plenty of time for a summer swoon to kill manager Davey Johnson’s dream of leading the Nats out of darkness this season.
However, there’s a different sensibility among those who are late to D.C.’s baseball party, which resumes Friday at Atlanta, the start of a challenging, nine-game road trip.
Newly minted fans expect the Nats to win at least 36 of the final 70 games and eclipse the elusive break-even point. They expect the team — sitting eight games back and trailing six clubs — to contend for the wild card berth. But most of all, they expect to feel like winners, even if the Nats fall a little short.
There’s simply too much evidence and too much promise (next year and beyond) to convince them they’re rooting for a bunch of losers.
Amazingly, the Nats are 46-46 despite $126 million free agent Jayson Werth being invisible; cornerstone Ryan Zimmerman missing 63 percent of the games; first baseman Adam LaRoche being shelved after seven unproductive weeks; up-the-middle defenders (Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos) having less than two years of major league experience combined; a starting rotation of Livan Hernandez and four other question marks entering the season; and a 23-year old closer (Drew Storen) who had five career saves as of Opening Day.
Besides that, converts are more optimistic with Johnson in charge, a brand-name manager they’ve heard of. The day he replaced Jim Riggleman, Johnson declared that the Nats “definitely” have enough talent to reach the postseason. The club has effused confidence ever since, even though the World Series-winning manager with his .563 career winning percentage is still a loser with the Nats (6-8).
“I like the direction we’re headed in,” Johnson said after the first half ended with a 2-0 victory against Colorado. “We’re a young club coming up trying to establish ourselves as somebody to be reckoned with. Every game we play, you can tell we can play with just about anybody. We play outstanding ballgames.”
They play excruciating and frustrating ballgames, often low-scoring affairs that hang in the balance until the end. They’re only 8-6 in games when their opponent scores two runs. They’ve been shut out 11 times, more than any team except San Diego. Their offense ranks next to last in the NL in average and hits and 12th in RBI and runs.
With all of that, the Nats still have won as many games as they’ve lost, which is uncharted territory at the break for Zimmerman.
“I guess it’s kind of a mini-accomplishment,” said Zimmerman, whose entire major-league career has been spent here. “But we’re not by any means happy with it. We know that we have a good team here, and we want to win this year. I’m not saying we’re going to be 20 games over .500 or win the division. But people keep talking about next year. If we keep hanging around, who knows? Look at the Padres last season.”
Despite an attack as anemic as the Nats’ offense this year, San Diego in 2010 won 90 games and barely missed the wild card, using the same pitching-and-defense formula that’s propelling Washington.
The Nats essentially are playing with house money the rest of the way. Budding ace Jordan Zimmermann will reach his innings limit soon, and the right trade offers might remove Hernandez and/or Jason Marquis from the picture. But there are plenty of reinforcements already in the system, not counting the future bounty of Strasburg and fellow mega prospect Bryce Harper.
All things considered, a .500 record at the break never looked better.
“Ending the first half on a good note was really key,” Storen said. “Five hundred is not where we want to end up, but I think that’s a big step forward from where we were at the beginning of the season. I think it’s a good steppingstone to where we want to be.”
Recent fans are thrilled by the ride thus far. Hardened observers should be happy, too.
Even if they’re scared to admit it.
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