By Memorial Day weekend, the Washington Nationals usually look like, well, a wreck in the Indianapolis 500. Offseason plans have been rear-ended. Best-case scenarios have gone hurtling into the wall. The fire truck has arrived, and it's spewing foam in all directions.
It was rarely any different for the Nationals' predecessors, the first- and second-edition Senators. By the end of May, all hope of a pennant race — one involving D.C., that is — usually had sunk to the bottom of the Potomac. So it has been in the nation's capital for about as long as anyone can remember. In the Washington sports cycle, baseball has been basically an April/May thing, something to bridge the gap between the end of the hoops and hockey seasons and the annual smorgasbord of summer happenings (the local PGA Tour event, the start of Redskins training camp, etc.). I mean, let's face it, unless you have a profound affinity for the Emerald Chessboard, it's hard to remain emotionally engaged with a ballclub that's in the process of losing 90 to 100 games.
All of a sudden, though, the cycle seems to be changing. After Saturday's victory in Atlanta, the Nationals were in first place in the East by 2½ games. Better still, there's no sense they're playing over their heads — as there was in 2005, when they got hot before the All-Star break and were 50-31 at the halfway point. Back then, D.C. was delirious about having a baseball team again, but not to the extent of being delusional. Fans knew, if they were being honest with themselves, that what goes up must come down (and the '05 Nats, cobbled together as they were, certainly didn't prove immune to the law of gravity).
But the current Nats are different from those Nats. The club Mike Rizzo has built, brick by brick, looks to have staying power — not just here-and-now staying power but staying power of the long-term variety. The pitching staff, while still young, has the best ERA in the majors (2.95). The bats, dormant early, have come alive in recent weeks. Indeed, were it not for a crazy run of injuries (Michael Morse, Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos, Drew Storen, Brad Lidge), the team might very well have the best record in baseball.
Let me run that by you again: A team in Washington, D.C., could easily have the best record in the majors.
It's hard to overstate what a huge ground shift this is — disorienting, really. We're talking, after all, about a town that didn't even have an MLB club for 33 years (1972-2004), that had to borrow Baltimore's Orioles as a rooting interest. But the Nationals, the way they're playing, are simply demanding our attention. Even if you're just a casual follower of the game, it's hard not to notice the potential that oozes from every pore of Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. And when you consider that the last Hall of Famer to wear a "W" on his jersey was Harmon Killebrew in 1960, it's pretty exciting to think that Strasburg and Harper's careers are just beginning. The mind runs wild with thoughts of what the two of them might accomplish in the next decade.
At any rate, this is entirely foreign to modern-day Washington, the idea of a baseball team — from April to October — being a central part of the sports conversation. By now we're usually wondering aloud: "Who's playing in Tiger Woods' tournament this year?" Or: "What moves do you think the Capitals will make?" Or: "When is the NBA draft lottery?" Or: "Is there any way we can move up the football season a couple of months?"
You get the feeling, though, that if the Nats can keep building on what they've started, there'll be no going back. That's not to say they'll ever supplant the Redskins in the hearts of Washingtonians; it just means there's still plenty of room in those hearts for other diversions. (There are times, after all, when the athletic calendar around here can seem awfully thin — lots of games, but too few meaningful ones.)
Imagine legions of fans dutifully following Morse's rehab stint in the minors ... or being unable to sleep at night because the team hasn't talked about extending Adam LaRoche's contract ... or knowing everything there is to know about Sandy Leon, the Double-A catcher who was called up in an emergency a while back. Imagine, in other words, Washington being a Certified Lunatic Baseball Metropolis.
The Nationals might not have that kind of broad-based devotion just yet, but on Memorial Day weekend 2012, it may not be far off.
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