For Nationals, getting to .500 would mean something

For as much as it’s discussed in sports, a .500 record really shouldn’t have as great a significance as it does. It is the epitome of average - all it means is that on a given day, a team is as likely to win a game as it is to lose it. Essentially, it’s the same predictor as flipping a coin - the thing that gets done to break ties when one choice hasn’t distinguished itself from the other.

In the world of major professional sports, where winning might not be the only thing anymore but is certainly the most lucrative thing, .500 isn’t a standard to be celebrated. But for the Nationals, getting there would be a big deal, if only because it’s been so long since anyone could go into a game without the preconceived notion they were going to lose.

Today will be the Nationals’ 72nd game of the season, and if they beat the Orioles, they’ll be at .500 with a 36-36 record. The only other time they were at or above. 500 at that juncture was in 2005, when they were 42-30 and in the middle of a stretch that had fans thinking playoffs in the team’s first season in Washington.

Since then, there’s been nothing approaching that kind of buzz at this point in a season. Here are the Nationals’ next five records after 72 games:

2006: 32-40
2007: 30-42
2008: 29-43
2009: 22-50
2010: 33-39

Until last season, the Nationals were in a four-year trend of getting further and further away from respectability with 90 games to go in the season. And when they were languishing at 27-36 heading into last Friday, this season looked like another step in the wrong direction.

Instead, the Nationals have reeled off eight straight wins, and players are talking like the team has stepped beyond much of its past.

“We’ve said from the beginning we have more veteran guys on this team,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the only member of the Nationals’ clubhouse who’s played through all of those losing seasons. “It’s hard to win at this level, and when you have a young team like we’ve had for the last couple years, you get exposed. You have to learn from your mistakes. By no means am I saying that we’re there yet, but we’ve definitely made some progress.”

That’s ultimately what a .500 record would be for the Nationals: a step. Manager Jim Riggleman said the Nationals set the goal of getting to .500 three weeks ago, when the Nationals were in stretch of 10 losses in 12 games. The idea was, get back to .500, and then chart a new course from there.

It’s been so long since the Nationals have been able to see another course beyond respectability. And if they get to .500 today, they’ll have a day off to look around, take in the view and set a new target beyond merely being average.

“We felt like, we’re not going catch the Phillies tomorrow. We’re not going to catch the Braves tomorrow,” Riggleman said. ‘Let’s get to .500, and if we do that, then we can set some more goals. But it’s certainly a sense of accomplishment.”