In the most empirical sense, the Nationals’ 13-10 record in April was merely a solid month, a .565 winning percentage in a sport that demands five more months at that clip to even sniff the post-season. But from what it meant to a franchise and a fanbase...well, that’s another story.
Consider the team’s record in the last four Aprils: 8-17 in 2006 under Frank Robinson, 9-17 in 2007 and 2008 under Manny Acta, And then there was April 2009, when the Nationals started the year on a seven-game losing streak, changed closers by the end of the month and won exactly five times, essentially taking 21 games to render the final 141 meaningless.
Now consider the backdrop that set the 2010 season; the Nationals started the spring 0-11, eliciting snickers from around baseball that Jim Riggleman’s first season as manager would look like Acta’s last. And on Opening Day, when Phillies fans packed Nationals Park and booed the home team before President Obama strode to the mound and whipped a White Sox hat out of his Nationals jacket, well, the 11-1 loss wasn’t the most humbling part of the day.
To pry a 13-10 month out of all that - with franchise player Ryan Zimmerman starting less than half of those games - is a bigger feat than the record alone suggests. The Nationals played 18 games against teams with winning records last season and 13 games against 2009 playoff teams, and still won. They put free-agent acquisition Jason Marquis on the disabled list with elbow trouble after a disastrous start to the season, and still won. At the end of the month, they were a game behind the Mets for first place in the NL East, ahead of the Phillies and well ahead of anyone’s expectations.
“It’s hard work in spring training and believing in yourselves,” shortstop Ian Desmond said after Friday’s 7-1 win over the Marlins. “We can compete with the NL East. We can compete with anybody.”
Their new closer, Matt Capps, went 10-for-10 in save situations a year after the Nationals’ bullpen dumped kerosene over leads in April all month. Reliever Tyler Clippard surged into the setup role, with one fan coining the nickname “Clip and Save” for the duo by the middle of the month. Veteran Livan Hernandez, signed to a minor-league deal in spring training, started the year with a 16-inning shutout streak and ended the month with an 0.87 ERA. And the Nationals’ little bandwagon even got its own emblem; a silver Elvis wig, cribbed from center fielder Nyjer Morgan’s Halloween costume, that became the rotating award for the team’s hero of the night, bouncing between more than a half-dozen players and no doubt creating as many hygiene issues as it did smiles.
That the Nationals’ surge came at the end of a month where Washington’s recent darlings - the Capitals - collapsed as favorites in the playoffs is not insignificant. Team president Stan Kasten said in a radio interview on Friday that studies show little overlap between fanbases; baseball fans will go to baseball games, hockey fans will go to hockey games, and so on. But D.C. wasn’t a hockey town before the Capitals provided substance; now, the District is puck-crazy.
With the Capitals done, the District’s sports slate from now until Redskins training camp belongs solely to the Nationals. And for the first time since 2005, they might be able to provide the results that create buzz. Chien-Ming Wang is coming eventually. Jesus Flores is recovering from a shoulder injury. Drew Storen is already at Triple-A Syracuse. And Stephen Strasburg will be here soon enough, his 100-mph fastball providing enough wattage to light up the city.
It’s just a month, and today begins a new one, during which the Nationals play 18 games on the road and 13 out of their own time zone. They have to hope their pitching staff continues to hold together, their bullpen keeps its verve and their defense, which led the league in errors the last two years, doesn’t revert to some mistake-prone mutation of its former self.
It’s just a month. But the Nationals, and their fans, can still hope. That’s a right that, by the end of the last four Aprils, had already come and gone. This year, it’s still alive, manifested in silver wigs and catchy nicknames and what-ifs.
“I think we’ve played good baseball,” Riggleman said. “We haven’t really taken off offensively. We haven’t hit our stride pitching. We’ve done just enough. We’ve overcome a couple things that we’ve done just by playing good, hard baseball.”