- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 4, 2005

Two months into their inaugural season in Washington, the Nationals are battling for first place in the National League East. That’s pretty good for a team that finished last and won just 67 games last season.

Is it for real? Is the team we have watched for the first two months of the season the real Washington Nationals? Or is it some kind of euphoric illusion?

Manager Frank Robinson doesn’t think it’s an illusion. If anything, he thinks we have yet to see the best this team has to offer.

“We can look back and see that we could be better,” Robinson said. “We are not satisfied.”

They shouldn’t be satisfied, because while their start is probably more than Nationals fans could have hoped, they know that it easily could go the other way — they could be one bad stretch away from fighting to avoid last place rather than getting into first.

The difference? Simple. Better players, and more of them.

Last season, when the former Expos were hit with injuries, they were reduced to calling up untested youngsters to fill in — and not highly touted prospects either. There were no Vlad Guerreros in the bunch.

In fact, if last year’s Expos had to deal with the injuries that this year’s Nationals have, they might have finished sixth in the NL East — and there are only five teams.

Last year the Expos used 46 players. Already this season, the Nationals have used 39. Heck, I embarked on a 15-day road trip of the Nationals minor league teams, and during that trip I met players who had been called up and sent back down before I returned to RFK Stadium.

Yet Washington was able to put a competitive team on the field night after night. Teams that face the Nationals these days must feel like Butch and the Sundance Kid, wondering, “Who are these guys?”

The Braves, who won 15 of 19 against the Expos last year, left RFK this week having lost three out of four and were fortunate to get that one win. The Nationals are 7-2 against the perennial division leaders.

“It’s a good feeling to be playing this well,” Robinson said. “The Braves are helping because they are not playing as well as they are capable of playing.”

The thing is, neither are the Nationals — at least a healthy Nationals team.

“With the injuries we have had, and the uncertainty of guys playing from one day to the next for one reason or another, we are still in the hunt and still in pretty good shape, and that is a reflection of how talented this team is,” Robinson said. “Without that type of talent, in the past the bottom would have fallen out. That’s the real difference this year here. We have people we have brought in here after the front-line guys have gone down, and they have done a real good job for us.”

The team’s play reflects its manager’s personality. But the roster itself has to be some sort of vindication for former Cincinnati boy wonder general manager Jim Bowden, who put together this talent. I remember back to the general managers meeting in Florida in November, when Bowden talked about how he hoped the Nationals would compete this season.

“In a small market, you have to build up your bullpen to compete,” Bowden said. “You can’t compete with Atlanta’s payroll for a starting rotation. If I can’t beat you in the first five innings, then I have to beat you in the sixth, seventh and the eighth to win in a small market. If you don’t beat us in the first five innings, then we can play with the big boys in the sixth, seventh and the eighth. I may not be able to beat you in the ninth, but in the sixth through the eighth, I can beat Atlanta and the other teams.”

Now, listen to Robinson’s assessment of one of the major differences this year for his team, after two months. “Last year and the year before, these are games we would have lost to this ballclub, and that is less to do with them than it has to do with us,” he said, talking about the Atlanta wins. “We are playing good baseball, getting good pitching, and good relief pitching. They usually came back on us in the late innings of the ballgame — seventh, eighth and ninth innings, and [in past years] they wound up beating us in these close ballgames. Now we have relief pitchers who are not giving them runs late in the ballgame and are shutting them down and giving us a chance to win.”

One of the marvels of a baseball season is that it is long enough to expose bad teams. It is an accomplishment to win more games than you lose when you play 162 of them. There are lots of bad teams who would have won championships if it were a 53-game season.

But when you factor in all of the injuries — 10 players on the disabled list right now — it tends to mitigate the notion that the Nationals will find their level at some point this season, and that level is not battling for the division lead. To have maintained their level of play through all the uncertainty is a reason to believe. And as one flaky reliever declared in New York more than 30 years ago, “You gotta believe.”

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