- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 14, 2005

It was the third week of April, and one of those ever-present television talking heads was asked what he thought about the new Washington Nationals, who had gotten off to a nice little start to take a surprising spot atop the National League East.

“Yeah, the Nationals are playing pretty good right now,” the expert analyst said. “But just give them two more weeks and they’ll be back where they belong: in last place.”

Boy, he and a lot of others don’t look so “expert” anymore.

When they open the second half of the season this afternoon in Milwaukee, the Nationals will be right where they’ve been for the last 39 days: in first place.

At 52-36, they own the second-best record in the National League, third-best in the majors. They’ve reached such lofty heights despite scoring the fewest runs, hitting the fewest homers and stealing the fewest bases in the league. They’ve done so by posting an almost unheard-of 24-10 record in one-run games and by coming from behind to win 29 times. And they’ve done so with 19 players spending time on the disabled list and 44 players spending time in uniform.

It would be fair, then, to suggest Washington has exceeded all expectations this season.

Fair, unless you’re the manager of this scrappy bunch that has believed in itself from Day One.

“You all have a tendency to say we’ve exceeded expectations,” manager Frank Robinson said. “It depends on what your expectations were of this ballclub this year. We haven’t exceeded my expectations. I didn’t say we were going to win a division title, but I did say we would contend.”

Indeed, the Nationals’ collective confidence and refusal to listen to the naysayers have in part propelled this club to places most thought unimaginable.

There’s no other way to explain Washington’s on-field success through the season’s first 88 games. The team is a statistical anomaly. It can’t hit. It can’t run. It can’t compete with anyone in the division when it comes to financial wherewithal.

But those are only some of the ingredients necessary for a winning ballclub. And if you don’t have big enough portions of those at your disposal, you can make up for it with a heaping bowl of clubhouse chemistry.

That’s what the Nationals have going for them, more than anything else. There’s a certain feeling longtime baseball people get from being around a club day in and day out. And those who have been with this club from the first day of spring training say they had an inkling of its enormous potential all along.

“I did know there was a different attitude on this ballclub this year from the past,” Robinson said. “And I felt like that would translate into us being able to stick and stay within hailing distance of the ballclubs that might be in front of us. I did feel that about this team in spring training. But I had no idea it would come together and bond together the way it has.”

General manager Jim Bowden, too, had a hunch about this club from the start. He saw the opportunity for something special, and before long he was comparing this squad to his 1999 Cincinnati Reds team that won 96 games and lost a one-game playoff with the New York Mets.

That club featured a mix of young, unproven talent and veteran, savvy leadership. And in that mold, Bowden this winter sought to bolster the Nationals’ returning core of young talent (Brad Wilkerson, Brian Schneider, Nick Johnson, Chad Cordero) with a group of seasoned, proven leaders (Vinny Castilla, Carlos Baerga, Jose Guillen, Cristian Guzman).

The result has been nothing short of remarkable.

“I don’t think people understand the number of guys that we brought in this past year who have been to the postseason,” Bowden said. “We signed Baerga, Guzman, Castilla, Guillen. These guys have been there, and that’s part of the reason why we brought them here: To make it easier for the ones who haven’t. …

“I don’t see this as a team that’s going to collapse in the second half.”

Even if most around the sport do. Asked who they believe will win the NL East this year, nearly every expert at this week’s All-Star Game had the same response: Atlanta.

Sure enough, the Braves are once again considered the favorites. They’ve won 13 straight division titles, they lurk just 21/2 games behind the Nationals and they’re poised to get Chipper Jones, Tim Hudson and Mike Hampton back from the disabled list.

That’s just fine with Washington’s players. They’ve been beating the odds all season. No reason for things to change now.

If nothing else, this club has proven it doesn’t care what anyone else thinks of it. And not even the most remarkable first half in baseball is going to convince this team and its manager to change the way it goes about its business.

“We’ve played the best in this division up to this point,” Robinson said. “That doesn’t mean much, because if we don’t finish this off, who’s going to remember what the Nationals did in the first half?”

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