- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 19, 2012

Late Thursday afternoon, Tyler Clippard stood a few inches from a big-screen television in back of the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse.

The MLB Network’s live shot was from a few dozen feet away at Nationals Park, as sun lit up the deep red dirt in foul territory.

“These guys have been amazing,” the television blared. “I knew they would be good, but …”

Clippard crossed his arms. The setup man didn’t say anything. No one else paid attention to the television hollering like a used-car salesman.

Off to the best 13-game start since moving to Washington in 2005, the Nationals are taking a longer-term view. Players shrug off April standings.

The clubhouse culture has changed. Manager Davey Johnson spent the spring telling anyone who would listen he expects to contend. The clubhouse believed him. They expect to be here. That’s no small thing from a team that compiled a .395 winning percentage over the first 13 games in each of the past seven seasons.

“Back then was different,” said Roger Bernadina, the longest-tenured member of the organization who signed in 2001. “This is definitely an attitude like you can win every day.”

Nearby, Adam LaRoche preached patience. He knows how quickly standings change. The veteran is part of the culture shift. In previous seasons, he noted, the Nationals were “used to being around” the bottom of the standings.” No more.

In his fourth season with the team, Sean Burnett credits Jayson Werth’s signing with sparking the clubhouse shift.

“It’s a different atmosphere this year,” Burnett said. “You’ve seen it slowly change. … Expectations changed with that signing. Losing wasnt acceptable anymore. There was more accountability.”

Those standings don’t matter much to LaRoche, for one, until the All-Star break passes. But the sizzling start, even against scuffling teams such as the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs, serves a broader purpose for a team with an average age of 28.8 years. Its something new-age statistics such as WAR and BABIP and wRC+ cant quantify.

“We’re not the Yankees, we’re not the Red Sox, we’re not the Phillies, but we’re there now,” LaRoche said. “As far as the track record, those guys are up there. They don’t panic early in the season. They know they’re good. They’re been there and done that. … It’s crucial to get that mentality from we think we’re good to we know we’re good and let that carry over to the 25 guys and see what happens.”

The flurry of wins (the best start by a Washington baseball team since the Senators in 1951) have come without cleanup hitter Michael Morse. Hes a week into a month-and-a-half of “total shutdown” to try and heal a strained lat. Closer Drew Storen is after surgery to remove a bone chip from his right elbow, too. Same for fifth-starter Chien-Ming Wang, recovering from a pulled hamstring.

Offensive stalwarts such as Danny Espinosa, Wilson Ramos and Ryan Zimmerman havent come untracked.

Still, the Nationals find ways to win, helped by a pitching staff - the third-youngest in baseball - with the games best earned-run average.

“They’re just reinforcing what we all believe,” Johnson said. “There’s still a lot of battles to go. We haven’t won nothing. But weve proven we can play with anybody we go up against.”

Added Zimmerman: “The best thing we have going is we understand it’s early. We’re not really taking this, I don’t know, over the top. … Hey, keep playing like were playing, but don’t get carried away.”

Notes

• Reliever Brad Lidge reported a series of exercises rotating his head helped clear up vertigo that bothered him earlier this week. The vertigo wasnt as intense as Lidge experienced previously, but it lasted for days instead of the usual hours. “When I’d wake up it was really bad, but by the end of the day it got a lot better,” Lidge said. “I’m glad it’s gone now. That’d be a pain in the butt to linger.”

• Utilityman Steve Lombardozzi started at shortstop Thursday to give Ian Desmond a “mental break.” Johnson, though, didn’t exactly rave about how Lombardozzi fields the position: “He’s adequate. … Ive had a lot worse out there.”

• Wang will throw three innings in his first rehab start Monday, Johnson said. However, Johnson wasn’t certain what affiliate Wang will pitch for.

Amanda Comak contributed to this report.