NEW YORK | The Nationals are 3-3, and if that seems insignificant - well, it is, in the course of 162 games.
But consider how little it takes to play .500 baseball this early in the season, when hot streaks carry more value than they should and a good pitching performance or two is enough to inspire optimism. Now consider how long it's been since the Nationals were at that relatively pedestrian juncture: Two years, five days and 323 games.
Since then, they've seen a first-round pick get away, fired a coaching staff, had a general manager resign, fired a manager, signed the No. 1 pick minutes before deadline and given two interims full-time jobs.
And on the day when their brightest prospect made his minor-league debut, the Nationals got to .500 with a player on a hot streak and a good pitching performance. That alone represents progress, however minute it might be.
The Nationals beat the New York Mets 5-2 on Sunday, chasing two-time Cy Young winner Johan Santana out of the game after five innings and getting seven innings of shutout ball from Livan Hernandez, who was shuttling up and down Interstate-95 from his home in Miami to the team's complex in Viera, working out and waiting his turn to pitch in the majors.
Other than a goofy grand slam and a heated exchange, there was nothing special about the Nationals' second straight win and three in four days. Unless you consider that one year ago, they were still 10 days from win No. 3.
"Any time you win a ballgame, it feels better. It feels better getting on the bus to go to Philadelphia, it feels better going to the ballpark the next day," manager Jim Riggleman said. "You can't take it for granted. Winning a ballgame is tough."
There was more attention put on a game 275 miles west of New York on Sunday, where top pick Stephen Strasburg was making his debut at Double-A Harrisburg in Altoona, Pa. But the Nationals put together a confident, efficient win of their own.
With third baseman Ryan Zimmerman out of the lineup, they still jumped on Santana for four first-inning runs, all of them coming on one of the more bizarre grand slams you're likely to see all year.
Outfielder Josh Willingham blasted a 2-1 changeup from Santana to center field, a foot to the right of the orange line on Citi Field's crooked fence. It bounced back into play, and second-base umpire Jim Wolf didn't signal a home run. Adam Dunn, who was in front of Willingham, slowed briefly, but picked up speed in time to railroad catcher Rod Barajas at the plate.
When the ball got away from Barajas, Willingham bolted from third, but was tagged out at home. At that point, though, it was clear the play would need to be reviewed.
Zimmerman, doing exercises to strengthen his strained left hamstring, dropped what he was doing to race down the tunnel and tell his teammates what he saw on TV - the ball had hit to the right of the vertical line, which traces a 90-degree drop in the fence, and was clearly a home run.
After a two-minute delay, the call was changed, and Willingham went from being out at home to having the fifth grand slam of his career.
"I just saw it hit off a wall. It never occurred to me that it was a home run," Willingham said. "It didn't until I got to the dugout and people were like, 'That's a home run!' Then a couple of guys came out and said it hit on the other side of the orange line. It was a nice little surprise."
The other surprise of the day came in the form of Hernandez, who signed with the Nationals during spring training and spent much of the exhibition season pitching in the middle innings of games after Strasburg wowed fans with his virtuoso's repertoire.
Hernandez has none of Strasburg's heat - never has - but he put together the kind of start that the 21-year-old would do well to emulate.
The 35-year-old Hernandez, who wasn't called up until today so the Nationals didn't have to make room for him on their 40-man roster, located his pitches, changed speeds and kept the Mets from making a serious rally against him.
He came out of the game after seven shutout innings and 88 pitches only because he'd told manager Jim Riggleman he'd had enough.
"He can put on a clinic out there," Riggleman said. "He was at the top of his game. He was outstanding."
It was that simple for the Nationals until the ninth, when the Mets scored two runs in the bottom of the inning and tempers flared in the top of it. New York closer Francisco Rodriguez hit pinch-hitter Willie Harris on the arm with a pitch, and as Harris jogged down the first-base line, things got confusing.
Harris cursed because the beaning hurt, Rodriguez thought he was yelling at him, stepped toward first base and cursed back. Harris looked toward the mound momentarily and returned the greeting, and both benches emptied. Nothing eventful happened beyond a few taunts and points, but both Harris and Rodriguez said afterward the conflict came from a misunderstanding that got out of hand.
"I didn't direct anything towards him," said Harris, who added he'd prefer to fight than trade insults. "He said what he said to me, and that's why I said it back to him. It's a game. You're going to get hit. He's a man, I'm a man. If you've got a problem with me, do what you've got to do."
Dustups like that are common in baseball, though. What hasn't been is the Nationals putting together stretches of competence. And while a 3-3 run in April looks better than a 3-3 run in August only because it comprises the entire record, it's a little measure of credibility now.