Nationals’ surge to .500 means little - and that’s the point

The last time the Nationals were at .500 later in a season than this, they skidded there. It was Oct. 2, 2005, the final game of the season, and a team that had a winning record every day for four months and two days got pounded by the Philadelphia Phillies, ending a season that had harbored playoff hopes until mid-September without a winning record.

Ryan Zimmerman was a 20-year-old rookie on that team, getting his first taste of major league ball with a veteran team running out of gas and sliding out of a pennant race. He had been drafted with the fourth pick on June 7, meaning he’d never spent a day in the organization where the big-league club didn’t have a winning record until that day. For the next four seasons, he played on teams that were under .500 for good no later than a week into the season. Last year, when the Nationals started 20-15, they hit .500 for the last time on May 31, losing the next day on a walk-off homer and spending the final four months of the season with a losing record.

No player in the Nationals organization had endured more losing than Zimmerman. And yet, when he was asked what the significance was of getting back to .500 with the team’s 10th win in 11 games, Zimmerman said, “Uh, nothing.”

It definitely means more than nothing. The Nationals have been talking about this juncture as a goal for weeks, when they were nine games under .500 and needed their best stretch of baseball in six years just to get to this point. And beyond this season, there were the back-to-back 100-loss seasons, the unsigned first-round draft pick, the Dominican Republic scandal, the fired coaches and managers and the misspelled uniforms, all soiling the team’s reputation and turning it into a punchline around baseball.

Jim Riggleman recaps his bullpen’s performance as the Nationals beat the Mariners, 2-1.

But of the 25 players currently on the Nationals’ roster, only 10 played a major league game for the team the last time it lost more than 100. Eight have played in a playoff game, and seven have won World Series rings.

This is, by design, a different Nationals team, stocked with players more familiar with winning elsewhere than losing here. And that’s why there was only mild reaction in the clubhouse when the team beat the Seattle Mariners 2-1 on Wednesday night, evening its record at 37-37. It’s because the Nationals now have enough players who have been there before to teach the ones who haven’t how to get there.

“I say all the time we have a young team, but at the same time, Riz (general manager Mike Rizzo) and the guys in the front office did a great job of bringing in some role guys that have won, have been around,” Zimmerman said. “They know what it’s like to be expected to win every night, and I guess that’s kind of turning the chemistry or the atmosphere here. It’s just a different kind of feeling.”

In and of itself, .500 isn’t a standard to celebrate; it’s a benchmark of average play, winning as often as a coin comes up heads instead of tails. It was a nice round number, though, an easy target for manager Jim Riggleman to suggest when the team was losing. Now that the Nationals are there, they’ll have to set some new goals.

And in the end, that might be the biggest victory for the Nationals here - that they can actually think about life where .500 isn’t their aim.

“I’ve never been on a team that’s this far into the season and been at .500,” said left-hander John Lannan, who made his major league debut in 2007 and got the win for the Nationals on Wednesday. “I like it, but it’s time to move past that and set new goals and start going above it.”

They’ll get their first shot at a winning record on Wednesday, when Jason Marquis - one of those six players with a World Series ring - takes the mound for the Nationals against the Mariners’ Michael Pineda. Among the deals Rizzo has given to free agents in the last two years, the two-year, $15 million contract he gave Marquis in 2009 looked like one of the more foolish ones last year, when the right-hander had a 20.52 ERA in his first three starts and missed almost four months with elbow surgery. But Marquis had something Rizzo wanted - he had a ring, and he’d been in the playoffs every year for the first 10 seasons of his career.

Certain aspects of the Nationals’ roster construction - the lack of a bona fide leadoff hitter, the collection of thirtysomethings on the bench - have been excoriated, and the lack of a genuine No. 1 starter could ultimately be the team’s biggest problem. But among other things, Rizzo wanted a roster that could limit runs with solid defense and take its cue from veterans that had tasted success before.

That recipe has the Nationals at .500. And for the first time in a while, they’re looking to see how far beyond it they can go.

“A ton of teams are .500 in June, all the time,” Zimmerman said. “You can’t get too caught up in that, because they’re still however many months left. We know we have to continue playing like this if we want to turn this into anything special. And believe us, we know we have a lot of work left in front of us.”