- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 7, 2011

It’s been almost four weeks since the Washington Nationals’ season-high, eight- game win streak began, a run that has brought them through a managerial resignation and to the brink of the All-Star break with a winning record.

Since June 5, the Nationals are 20-10, one of the three best records in baseball. The other two teams playing to baseball’s best record in that span? The Philadelphia Phillies and the Atlanta Braves, both National League East rivals.

When the Nationals reached their low point this season, they were 11 games behind the first-place Phillies on May 30 and had lost 10 of their past 12 games.

As the Nationals prepared to play the Chicago Cubs on Thursday night, they were looking for their first four-game sweep of the season, having won 23 of 35 games since that low point five weeks ago. Yet, they’re still 10 games out of first place in the division.

“You see that, and you can get frustrated,” said closer Drew Storen, who added that he rarely looks at standings or statistics. “But you’ve got to control the controllables.

“We see how the Phillies are playing…. We’re just trying to hang with them. That’s the way it’s going to be because the pitching in our division is so good. It’s not like the Phillies or the Braves are going to drop off. If anything, the Mets are going to get better, too. We’ve got to figure it out one way or another how to take those guys down.”

The NL East and American League East are widely regarded as baseball’s toughest divisions. While the Nationals can feel great about what they’re doing on a daily basis, it’s difficult to look at the standings and see no progress being made.

That’s not the case in Washington. Almost anyone will conceded that fact. In 2010 the Nationals went into the All-Star break 11 games under .500. Even if they were to lose their final four games before the break this year, they’d still finish just two under .500. So while the focus still is on winning, it’s also about setting things up to close the gap between them and the division’s elite in the future.

“Under my watch, I want everything to feel like at the end of this season, whether we make the playoffs or not, there are very few question marks going into spring,” said manager Davey Johnson. “And a lot of guys are settled into roles where you’re not going to need that type of role player in the coming season. If you do it properly, If you develop properly, as I call it, the byproduct of that is winning. If you don’t, then you lose.

“Philly’s further along. Atlanta has been there forever, and they’re further along. We’re climbing. Our farm system is getting better. Talent at this level is getting better.”

When the Nationals went to the winter meetings in Orlando, Fla., last year, Johnson, who was then an advisor to GM Mike Rizzo, said he looked at the team and noticed a lot of holes. There were question marks in several areas - players such as Michael Morse, Roger Bernadina, Ian Desmond and Wilson Ramos — who had potential but lacked the opportunity to prove themselves. When they head into this offseason, regardless of the team’s record and their standing in the division, Johnson knows many of those holes will be filled.

“We’ll know more about what we’re going to do at the end of the year with a full season with Morse playing every day,” Johnson said. “He didn’t do that last year… Same with the center fielder [Bernadina], same with the shortstop [Desmond], same with the catcher [Ramos], same with the second baseman [Danny Espinosa]. Four big holes. We had huge holes last year. That was just in the starting lineup.

“My job is simple. They’re going to do it, not me. I’m going to give them the opportunity and that’s going to be more important to the organization and to me because it’s long range…. You start in spring training next year. If I do my job properly, there’ll be only one or two question marks.”