Dynamic Nationals revel in new era
Sweep at Fenway the latest achievement for surging squad
The "W" hats could be seen in Kenmore Square and up and down Boylston Street, a mile away. Before each of the three weekend games, the Yawkey Way and food-court mingling featured red jerseys with the names Zimmerman and Strasburg and Gonzalez.
For years, the reverse had been true on The Beltway. Orioles players had grown weary of Camden Yards being drowned in the chants of visiting Yankees and Red Sox fans, and the same was true in Washington the one time the Red Sox visited for Interleague Play. What was so striking this weekend was not that the first-place Nationals swept the last-place Red Sox, not with Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann pitching.
What was striking was the way Nationals Nation traveled to Fenway, and not because the park is a mile from Mike Dukakis' house and the birthplace of John F. Kennedy. "They're really good," said David Ortiz. When the weekend was over, his teammates and manager were outspoken in their criticism of an umpiring crew that was, well, inconsistent. But what Ortiz saw was what has made the Nats baseball's new, new thing.
On Friday night, Strasburg struck out 13 and allowed two runs in six innings, a performance that led Ortiz to say, "That guy is as good as anyone I've ever seen." On Saturday, Gonzalez allowed two earned runs in 6 1/3 innings. On Sunday, Zimmermann allowed three runs in seven innings in a finale won in the ninth inning on a Roger Bernadina hit that scored Bryce Harper, who was running on the pitch and raced around the bases. Tyler Clippard, pitching for the fifth time in six days, closed it out for his eighth save.
Harper on Friday had put on a show with a single, a double, a homer, three RBIs and a game-saving catch in center field. When it was over, he talked about "hitting in the same batter's box where Ted Williams once stood," but Boston players talked more about him.
"It's pretty amazing to think that he's 19 years old," said Dustin Pedroia. "Man, he plays hard. He plays the game right." A thought repeated by several players.
Yes, it is the second week of June. Yes, the Red Sox are 5-8 in one-run games, 14-19 at Fenway and haven't been higher than fourth place all season. We all get that.
But the fact remains that the Nats, not long ago the wards of MLB, are in first place, and they are baseball's newest attraction. Harper and Strasburg are the two most hyped young players of their era, scarily talented and unusually dedicated to and focused on greatness. Ryan Zimmerman is an elite player. Their pitching staff leads the majors in ERA, Strasburg and Gonzalez are 1-2 in strikeouts, in the top seven in ERA and join Zimmermann in being tied for third in quality starts behind R.A. Dickey and Ryan Vogelsong.
And they are managed by the man who matured the Mets to their last world championship, and whose last job before Washington was taking the '97 Orioles from wire to wire in first place before Peter Angelos decided that Davey Johnson, Pat Gillick and Robby Alomar should go.
"Davey is so smart and with so much perspective, it is a learning experience for everyone around him," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "He is always in control. He says that one has to know how to lose, because before you win you have to understand how to lose. That's why there's such an air to this team."
No one is anointing the Nationals as baseball's best. No one knows how the Strasburg innings thing will play out. Everyone understands that they have a lot of swing-and-miss guys in their batting order, and that they are 13th in the National League in runs, 13th in on-base percentage, 11th in OPS and third in strikeouts.
But Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond are athletic in the middle of the infield, and the Nationals hope to get Jayson Werth back in the outfield and Drew Storen back in the bullpen. And they clearly enjoy the buzz that Harper and Strasburg create.
Washington has the Yankees at home next weekend for what should be a sellout weekend. The next weekend, the Nats go up the Beltway to play the Orioles, who are developing into a really nice story of their own. In the meantime, they have to play the Blue Jays and Rays in Interleague series that provide no relaxation.
But they left Boston with a sweep and in first place. They played well, and more significant in the long run, they traveled well. They left a park Harper called "a treasure," a park he visited at the age of 11, buzzing about the Harper/Strasburg phenomena. Yes, those were W caps on Yawkey Way, worn for the third Washington franchise since the last time a baseball team in the Nation's Capitol finished in the first division back in 1945.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.