My 13-year-old daughter was confused Tuesday night when she came into the room and saw the Nationals on TV instead of Heat-Thunder.
“How many games do they play in baseball?” she asked. “One hundred and sixty-two,” I replied. “The NBA finals are on,” she said. “That’s more important than a regular baseball game.”
Of course they are. The basketball game was in a commercial break. But truth be told, I’ve missed several minutes of NBA action this postseason because the Nats are so compelling. Even though 3 1/2 months remain in the regular season and plenty can change in that time — namely, Washington’s hold on first place in the NL East — the Nats’ allure is hard to resist.
And now the red-hot New York Yankees are here, creating the closest thing to a playoff atmosphere since Nationals Park opened. The Nats will have exactly 100 games left after Friday’s opener, and there couldn’t be a more exciting opponent to launch that countdown.
It helps that the Yankees actually resemble the Yankees again after a slow start. They’ve won six in a row and 16 of their past 20. Entering Thursday, they led the American League in home runs and ranked second in on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS. New York also owned the AL’s fourth-lowest ERA.
The Yanks could be in last place for this visit and they’d still create a major buzz with the considerable star power of Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, etc. But the Bronx Bombers’ performance is purely a subplot this weekend, as Washington finally is worthy of a leading role.
That wasn’t the case six years ago when the Yanks dropped two of three games at RFK Stadium. Those Nats were en route to 91 losses and their customary spot in the basement, while the Yanks were headed to a 12th consecutive postseason appearance. The takeaway was New York losing a meaningless series in June, not Washington winning one.
The Nats’ storyline has shifted dramatically since then, to the point that winning this series wouldn’t be a big deal. Washington expects to win because it’s won nearly every series this season, compiling a 38-23 record. But losing wouldn’t raise doubts. The Nats have answered most questions by going 14-6 so far in a supposedly brutal stretch.
Along the way, Washington has transformed into a must-see ball club, especially the exploits of prized ace Stephen Strasburg and prized rookie Bryce Harper. Those two are far from alone, but they represent the team’s expectation of greatness. You’re never sure what’s coming next from the Nats, be it a shutout or a barrage of homers, but you know anything is possible.
A heightened sense of anticipation is old news for the Yanks, but Washington is creating one right before our eyes. That’s what makes the Nats so fascinating. The winning must be as strange for them to experience as it is for us to witness, yet they continue to make it routine, as if 15 games over .500 is perfectly normal for a D.C. baseball team.
That’s the new reality awaiting the Yanks. Three of their division foes got an earlier taste, going a combined 2-7 against Washington in interleague play. The Nats won’t be intimidated in playing the Yanks at home, not on the heels of a 6-0 road trip to Boston and Toronto.
But the Yanks make a fine measuring stick, and everyone in baseball is curious to see whether the Nats can continue this pace. Whether Harper can become baseball’s best-ever teenager. Whether Friday’s starter, Gio Gonzalez, can outpitch Strasburg. Whether Manager Davey Johnson can keep pushing the right buttons, such as giving Tyler Moore a start Wednesday and watching the rookie deliver two homers and five RBI.
New York is magic at the box office, which should ensure three sellouts this weekend and a vocal minority rooting for the road team. But watching successful Yankee teams is like watching reruns of your favorite TV show; they’re comfortable, familiar and predictable.
Conversely, Washington is like a new hit series. Regardless of whom the Nats play (no offense, Yankees), we can barely stand missing a single episode.