- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 3, 2005

It’s September, but what the Washington Nationals need is for it to be April again. They need to start the season’s final stretch with the same attitude they had when it started April 4 in Philadelphia: Everybody thinks we stink, but we’re going to prove them wrong.

They need to find the big chip they carried on their shoulder going into the season, when all coherent observers dismissed any hope of Washington’s new baseball team having any chance to seriously compete this year.

It’s a necessary component for most underdogs to succeed.

Somewhere along the way — probably when the Nationals were in first place during June and most of July — the team with a bare bones $50 million payroll playing in a 44-year-old stadium in a town that hadn’t had baseball in 34 years started to believe it was really that good.

And that in a division with current wild-card leader Philadelphia; perennial powerhouse Atlanta; Florida, the division’s best team on paper; and New York, a team that spent $200 million on free agents last winter.

“I think it is better for us to believe we belong,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “We have been there before. We are still close and have so many games left in the division. For us to think that we are underdogs or that if we make it, that’s great since nobody expected us to anyway — that’s the negative route. We need to think we belong here because we know we belong here. We can play with these guys. We have all year long, and that shows that we belong.”

But they are not as good, and they don’t belong.

That doesn’t mean the Nationals can’t play that way. The club has done so for 135 games, and there is no reason they can’t for the final 27. It may not add up or make sense if you crunch numbers or compare talent, but it didn’t from the start. Yet the Nationals are just four games out of the wild-card lead even after last night’s loss to the Phillies.

It is not talent that put the Nationals in their current position. It is attitude as much as anything, but Washington manager Frank Robinson said the attitude present at the beginning of the season is not there now.

“I don’t get the same feel, the same electricity, that same energy about the situation as I did in the beginning of the year,” Robinson said. “That is missing from the clubhouse and this ballclub, that type of energy.”

To sustain that type of energy enough to overcome shortcomings over an entire season is a daunting task. But it has been done before and under Robinson as well. His 1989 Baltimore Orioles were a group of overachievers who battled the more talented Toronto Blue Jays for a divisional title until the final weekend.

However, when shortcomings get piled on top of already existing shortcomings, it makes it even more difficult. And they are piling up. The Nationals have just three starting pitchers they can send to the mound with any confidence, and they are perhaps the only team in baseball for which shortstop Deivi Cruz actually could be an improvement over the guy — and you know who that guy is — who was there before.

If the shortcomings become bigger, though, it might be time to find a bigger chip. A little bitterness or grudge with any or all of the team’s division foes wouldn’t hurt.

Alas, there is no bad blood between this franchise and any of its competitors, although Phillies starter Vincente Padilla did his part when he nailed Preston Wilson in the shoulder in the first inning last night.

The Nationals manager isn’t condoning a hate campaign. But it wouldn’t hurt either.

“You shouldn’t have to hate somebody to go out and perform well against them,” Robinson said. “You have to understand the situation. Each team in this division we should hate. Each team we play, we should hate. We should hate everybody right now. You don’t have to necessarily hate somebody, but if that is what it takes. … It does take some animosity to get some players up.”

Hate, love, whatever. If the Nationals want to finish what they started, they need to find that chip again and prove that while they may not be very good, they can be good enough to win.

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