The new attitude, or new culture, or whatever nebulous concept the Nationals are attributing to the sea change in their results early this season, got put in a crucible time and again on Sunday. They took a 1-0 lead, earned by an offense missing its best player, protected by a pitcher coming off shoulder surgery and fortified by a defense that was the worst in the majors last season, into the late innings against a team who has been to the last two National League Championship Series and who stole a game from them the day before.
And now the Dodgers were shooting sinking liners to the outfield, testing in real time whether the Nationals could hold up and win the kind of game they'd lost so many times the previous two years.
Rafael Furcal smoked one off Tyler Clippard at Josh Willingham to start the eighth. Willingham laid out, and nothing out of the ordinary happened - no stumbles and falls, no glare from sunlight or gloom from shadows. Willingham just laid out, stomach parallel to the ground, and caught the ball.
The situation was even more tenuous in the ninth, with the tying run on second and the Ronnie Belliard missile falling in front of Justin Maxwell presenting an even greater threat. Maxwell gloved it, slamming his head on the ground as he dove, and the lead was preserved. Again, nothing bad happened, and what's more, no one was expecting it to.
The Nationals ended the game like good teams do, protecting a 1-0 lead with sharp defense and steady pitching. They took two of three from the Dodgers and finished a 10-game homestand - which included games against teams with a combined four playoff appearances in the last two seasons - with a 6-4 record.
It was more proof that this team has nothing in common with the ones that lost a combined 205 games in 2008 and 2009, other than a uniform.
"Last year, it seemed like whatever could have gone wrong, went wrong," said first baseman Adam Dunn, who drove in the only run with a first-inning RBI groundout. "I think we're making our own luck, because everything is so positive around here right now. All the negative crap is pretty much behind us. We know what we've got, and we're showing it on the field."
Scott Olsen pitched seven shutout innings, striking out eight batters and walking just one, a start after he failed to make it out of the third inning against the Rockies.
His fastball stayed around 90 mph most of the day, but the key was a slider that Olsen frankly was missing in his last outing. On Sunday, he said it was the best he's thrown the pitch all year.
"When we were ahead in the count, we went to it a lot," Olsen said. "We got a lot of swings and misses on it. That's definitely the pitch that helped me out the most today."
Olsen convinced manager Jim Riggleman to let him stay in the game with one out in the seventh, and got a double play on pinch-hitter Andre Ethier to finish the inning.
Other than that and the first inning, when he loaded the bases, Olsen didn't get in much trouble all day, even if he failed to impress the Dodgers.
"When he throws his little changeup, it's like 85 miles an hour," said third baseman Casey Blake, who was 2-for-3 against Olsen. "It's not like a typical left-handed changeup, or a typical changeup. It's almost like a BP fastball that kind of dies a little bit. I don't know. We let him off the hook."
From Olsen, it was on to Tyler Clippard and Matt Capps, two keys to a bullpen that's been markedly better than the one that blew leads with frightening regularity last season. Clippard pitched a perfect eighth, dropping his ERA to 0.61, and Capps wriggled out of the ninth with the help of his defense after the leadoff double.
Maxwell, who'd had just one ball hit to him all day, was telling himself to be ready - "When your mind starts to wander, that's when you get the ball," he said. On a ball hit between the right fielder and second baseman Cristian Guzman, Maxwell had just enough speed to make the catch and keep the game tied. And a day after losing in 13 innings to the Dodgers, the Nationals packed up for a six-game road trip with a key win.
"It would have been a tough one to lose," Clippard said. "That's why a lot of the things that happened, happened. We made the pitches and made the plays because we didn't want to lose this one. That one (yesterday) hurt. We should have won that one, too, but we got this one."
It's their third win in four one-run games, the eighth time in eight tries Capps has saved a game, the first time since Sept. 16, 2008 they've won 1-0 and the latest exhibit in a growing case these Nationals are up to something different.
"This team didn't lose (103) games. That was last year," Dunn said. "I don't know any guys on this team that don't believe we can do some damage. And I don't mean just compete. I mean win."