What can the Nationals learn from the Phillies? They’re just better

For the third time in four years on Monday night, the Nationals watched the Phillies clinch and celebrate a division title on the same field as them, granting the Nationals premium seats to the type of euphoria they hope to one day experience themselves.

It’s happened so often that there is nothing left for the Nationals to learn from watching the Phillies celebrate - if there ever was. It’s why there was precious little talk about the 8-0 loss to the Phillies on Monday night, which sent Philadelphia to its fourth straight NL East title, as a teachable moment.

“I don’t have any thoughts about that,” manager Jim Riggleman said. “They’re in our division. They won our division. If they celebrate on their field, our field, or New York, Florida or Atlanta, they’re the winners. That’s what you’re out to do. You’re out to win. You’re out to win the division and move on.”

And the Phillies have done it again. You ask about inspiration, perhaps a lesson, the Nationals can glean from it? Here’s one: The Phillies, simply, are better than they are. A lot better.

They have not one, but three front-of-the-rotation starters in Roy Halladay (who threw a two-hitter for his 21st win on Monday), Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels. Their lineup is dangerous all the way through, from lightning bug center fielder Shane Victorino to their stellar middle of the order to underrated catcher Carlos Ruiz at the bottom of it. They steal bases efficiently, play good defense and win big games. And their shaky bullpen or early-season injuries notwithstanding, they’re there at the end, every single year.

For the Nationals, perhaps the most sobering thing they can learn from the Phillies is just how long it took them to get there. Philadelphia drafted now-departed outfielder Pat Burrell, the first piece of their championship foundation, with the first pick all the way back in 1998. Second baseman Chase Utley came in the first round in 2000, first baseman Ryan Howard was a fifth-round pick in 2001 and Hamels came in 2002 with the 15th overall pick. Victorino and outfielder Jayson Werth were castoffs that turned into starts with the Phillies.

Pitchers Kyle Drabek and J.A. Happ, two key pieces in the Halladay and Oswalt trades, came in later drafts once the Phillies were already competitive. It took good scouting, sound drafting and shrewd acquisitions, along with a little luck. And above all else, it took time.

The Nationals have a few of those pieces in place. Shortstop Ian Desmond, who struck team-leader tones when he talked about how “embarrassing” it was to have Phillies fans take over Nationals Park again, has fashioned a solid rookie year. Second baseman Danny Espinosa has the chance to be an exciting player, and both could complement franchise cornerstone Ryan Zimmerman nicely.

But there still isn’t close to enough depth in the rotation. The Nationals probably won’t have an ace until Stephen Strasburg returns from Tommy John surgery, and might not even then. They are still searching for a consistent leadoff hitter, and scouts in attendance Monday night believed there is little chance the Nationals will resign cleanup hitter Adam Dunn. Is 2012 too soon to expect them to be competitive? 2013?

What the Phillies have built is impressive, and should be a model for the Nationals; they’ve done it with a top-10 payroll inflated by retaining their own, and have combined scouting and win-now trades to excel in a big East Coast market. In the process, they’ve become the gold standard in the National League, and they have the best record in baseball.

On Monday night, again, they pointedly showed the Nationals the distance between the two clubs.

“It’s something to look forward to, eventually,” center fielder Nyjer Morgan said. “You work all year to get to that next level. We’ve just got to make strides, and seeing the other team gives you some kind of motivation, so you can try to succeed and get to that level where those guys are.”

Getting to that level, and staying there, could well take longer than anyone in Washington has the patience to stomach. That, more than anything else, is the lesson the Nationals can take from their front-row look at another championship dogpile on Monday.