- The Washington Times - Monday, April 18, 2011

The Nationals are 8-7 through their first 15 games this season, just like last season.

They’ve won five of their past seven contests entering Game No. 16, just like last season.

They’re in third place, 2½ games behind first-place Philadelphia. (That’s actually a smidgen worse than last season at this point, when they were third and 1½ games behind the NL East-leading Phillies.)

Yes, it’s early, and that will remain true three weeks from now. The sample size is way too small to draw conclusions. And we traversed this path last year, enjoying the modest success of a 13-10 April, with no idea of the cruel season ahead (a losing record each month thereafter).

But there’s no doubt that this year has a different feel for the Nationals.

You might expect as much after signing a World Series-winning outfielder to a seven-year contract worth $126 million. If Yogi Berra was correct when he said half of baseball is 90 percent mental, the addition of outfielder Jayson Werth was bound to pay dividends as he scrubs away at the Nats’ losing culture.

His elbow grease must be having an effect, because he’s yet to contribute much with his bat. He produced a storybook performance in his first game against his former Phillies teammates, going 2-for-3 with a homer, but struggled during the remainder of the just-concluded homestand.

To be fair, the entire team was stymied in the last two games against Philly, when Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee threw complete-game victories, yielding a combined two runs on nine hits while striking out 21. But Werth continued to struggle during the three-game sweep against Milwaukee (he got a day off in Sunday’s finale), and enters Tuesday’s series-opener at St. Louis batting just .200, the lowest average among Washington’s regulars.

Pitching has been key, yet the Nats have found ways to score without much from Werth or their franchise player, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who’s missed the past seven games with an abdominal strain. The fact that the team is 3-5 with Zimmerman and 5-2 with him - while Werth still looks for his stroke - is one reason to believe things will be different this year.

Resourcefulness can go a long way toward winning games, taking teams much further than just hitting balls a long way.

Entering Monday, the Nats were among the National League’s worst teams in slugging percentage (15th), batting average (15th), total bases (15th), and OPS (14th). But they were solidly middle-of-the-pack in runs (tied for ninth), because they know how to scratch and claw runners across the plate.

It’s a time-honored formula: Get ‘em on (second in walks); get ‘em over (tied for first in sacrifice hits); and get ‘em in (tied for ninth in RBI).

There’s no denying that Washington’s pitching deserves most of the credit thus far, as both the starting and relief units have kept the team in virtually every game. But the offense shows much room for improvement, another fact that bodes well with veterans Zimmerman, Werth and first baseman Adam LaRoche far below their season norms. Assuming they produce as usual, there’s another reason to be optimistic about the Nats this season.

Make that two reasons - rookies Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos.

Espinosa figures to be a Gold Glove-caliber second baseman, but he’s gaining attention at the plate, too. He leads all NL rookies in RBI (14), total bases (22) and slugging percentage (.512). By the way, his RBI total also is good enough to lead Washington; Pudge Rodriguez is a distant second with seven.

Speaking of Rodriguez, he better make the most of his at-bats because Ramos is looking more and more like an everyday catcher. He leads NL rookies in batting (.414) and on-base percentage (.500), and trails only Espinosa in slugging (.483).

If neither Espinosa nor Ramos wins Rookie of the Year, they might have the other to blame for splitting the vote. But you can’t help feeling better about the Nationals when they boast two contenders for the award, and neither one is named Bryce Harper or Stephen Strasburg.

Strasburg made last season unforgettable during his all-too-brief campaign. While this season is unlikely to produce the same spectacular highs, there’s a strong feeling the Nats won’t experience the same depressing lows.

• Deron Snyder can be reached at deronsnyder@gmail.com.

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