- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 17, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The New York Yankees have spent most of the last century under a magnifying glass. They’re used to being discussed, written about, observed, analyzed — down to the molecular level. It’s where they live. Nothing they do, in season or out, goes unnoticed.

So it was business as usual for Joe Girardi’s bunch when they arrived here Friday for a three-game set against the first-place Washington Nationals. When you’re the Yankees, every series matters … because every year you’re chasing another championship. No matter where the team plays — Boston, Tampa or, in recent weeks, Detroit and Atlanta — it’s a certified Big Deal, a gala event. Stadiums are filled, cameras are clicking, beer is flowing.

The past weekend was hardly business as usual for the Nationals, though. Let’s face it, these players are just beginning to experience the kind of attention that’s a constant for the Yankees and other successful clubs — the kind of clubs the Nats are trying to emulate. And maybe that showed a bit in their play, in their difficulty coming up with the big hit and their occasional lapses in the field. The Yankees, after all, play these games every day. The Nats don’t.

That’s one way, at least, of looking at New York’s 7-2, 5-3, 4-1 sweep, which brought a six-game Washington winning streak to a screeching halt. The Nationals were star-struck. Or they were too geeked up. Or they weren’t quite sure, despite their fine record coming in, that they were in the Yankees‘ class. Whatever the explanation, it was an education in every way for the Nats, an advanced tutorial — How To Play Baseball When Everybody’s Watching.

Something tells me the Nationals will apply these lessons and perform a lot better in this situation the next time around. Their manager, Davey Johnson, will see to it. Davey, you may recall, was involved in plenty of high-profile series as a player in Baltimore and Philadelphia and as a skipper in any number of places, including New York (with the Mets). He knows a thing or two about life in the fishbowl, about dealing with pressure. It’s one of the reasons he’s the right man for this job.

And what he’ll tell his team, no doubt, is: “Get used to this, because this is how you want it to be. You want 40,000 people the stands [as there were each day for the Yankees]. You want the media attention, good and bad. You want the games to be important. This is what it’s like to be a bona fide contender. This is what the playoffs are like. You have to be comfortable in these circumstances, to be able to excel in them.”

It’s hard to beat the Yankees when you score only six runs in 32 innings. They just have too many bats (so many they can afford to have Alex Rodriguez hitting, almost ceremonially, in the No. 3 spot). Was that nerves on the Nationals part, or did they just have a bad series? They didn’t, remember, have to face New York ace CC Sabathia, and Phil Hughes (4.76) and Ivan Nova (4.64) came in with less than spectacular ERAs. Seems like the Nats could have produced more offense — and perhaps, if the setting were more familiar, they would have.

“I think that’s the one good thing that came [out of] this weekend,” said Adam LaRoche, whose homer and double were the highlight of a mostly dreary Sunday. “That’s about as close to a playoff atmosphere as you’re going to get — although it can feel like a road game at times [with all the Yankees fans], and I’m sure they get that wherever they go, other than Boston. But that’s it. Get the place packed, people going crazy, and obviously it draws a lot of media attention. It’ll be good for these guys, especially the young guys, to get used to that.”

With the Nationals still leading the National League East by four games — everybody else in the division had a rough weekend, too — there figure to be many more series such as these in the months ahead, games with much at stake, played before large crowds. Maybe then, more of the Nats will, in Johnson’s words, be “doing the things they’re capable of doing.”

All of a sudden, every game is meaningful for the Nationals — the way every game is meaningful for the Yankees. Their play in the first 2½ months has given them a real opportunity; and as they showed the past three days, they’re still becoming accustomed to that, to the scrutiny and greater expectations. They’re no longer The Little Franchise That Couldn’t. Heck, they’ve got the best pitching in baseball.

Fortunately, some of the Nats are quick studies. Bryce Harper, for instance, followed the worst game of his life Saturday (0 for 7 with five strikeouts) with a two-hit effort Sunday that featured a double off the scoreboard. If only more players (read: slumping Ryan Zimmerman and slow-to-get-started Michael Morse) had responded similarly. But there still are 98 games left, lots of time for learning.

Make no mistake, though: The Nationals are, for the first time in their existence, exposed. More folks around Washington are paying attention to them, and more folks around the majors are, too. That changes things for a team, and the Nats, it’s clear, still are adjusting to that change. Once it becomes second nature to them, there shouldn’t be many more weekends like this last one.