The Nationals are returning home this weekend as conquering heroes. Not only have they completed one of the best road trips in team history at 8-2 and amassed the best road record in the majors, they have been passing key tests that they failed earlier in the season, showing how they have grown and matured as a team.
Remember back in late April when the Nats hit the West Coast for the first time? After taking two in San Diego, they stumbled in the series finale against the Padres before heading to Los Angeles for an early season showdown of division leaders with the Dodgers. Amid the hype of Bryce Harper's major league debut and Stephen Strasburg's first visit to Chavez Ravine, Clayton Kershaw, Matt Kemp and company taught the Nats a thing or two about big time baseball, sweeping them out of town - and the NL East lead.
Now think back to the team's second long road trip toward the end of May. What started off as a romp through Philadelphia and Atlanta turned sour in Miami. The Nats were seemingly dazzled by the new-look Marlins and their cavernous new ballpark, where their fly balls died and their offense stalled, scoring just seven runs in a three-game sweep.
Fast-forward to these past two weeks. This time around, the Nats took care of business against a weaker team in Houston and won the first two against a previously surging Arizona team. But a loss on Sunday made them look potentially vulnerable heading into San Francisco. Again, they faced a first-place team that loves to play in its pitcher-friendly park. This time, the Nats lit up National League ERA leader Ryan Vogelsong and the Giants' bullpen for 14 runs on 21 hits. After the Giants got up off the mat and countered with a strong game from Madison Bumgarner, the Nats hit back hard and knocked out two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum, taking two of three and bumping the Giants out of first place in the NL West.
The toughest tests are yet to come. The Nats still have to fend off a pesky Atlanta Braves team that is stinging from last year's late-season collapse, and finish a stretch run amid the distractions of the Strasburg shutdown debate and the annual stampede of media and public attention to the Redskins. The good news is that they have the opportunity to contend with those challenges on their own terms. If recent history is any indication, this hungry team will be up to the challenge.
Who do you think are the greatest Washington baseball players of all-time? DC Baseball History is holding its own All-Star election. We hope to receive ballots from fans of every generation. You can vote for a team from every era, from the pre-Griffith years of the early 20th century, the glory years of the '20s and '30s, the lean years of the '40s and '50s, the expansion Senators and the current Nationals. This round of voting ends on election day, Nov. 6. The leaders will go on a final ballot for the ultimate D.C. All-Star team.
In recent weeks, this blog has highlighted players like Walter Johnson and Goose Goslin, who helped the Senators win their last world Series in 1924; Joe Cronin and Joe Kuehl, who led the team to the AL championship in 1933; and Dutch Leonard, who anchored the pitching staff the last time the city saw a pennant race in 1945. What about Mickey Vernon and Harmon Killebrew in the 1950s, or Frank Howard, who wowed fans at the 1969 All-Star game? A number of current Nats could be considered as well.
Scour your memories, do some research, and don't forget to vote.
Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.