NEW YORK - The Nationals play game No. 40 tonight, a traditional milepost that represents the one-quarter point of the season and is viewed by some around the sport as the point in which you have a pretty clear idea whether a team is good or not.
The Nationals reach this juncture in first place in the NL East, though only by percentage points over the surprising Phillies and 1/2-game over the Mets. They do so with one of the majors' best-performing pitching staffs, a couple of the majors' most-productive hitters and a bunch of proven hitters still struggling to find their groove.
So at 23-16, where exactly do they reside in their own minds?
"I think it's important for us to be here, because we know we're good and we know we're better," manager Dusty Baker said. "Both. There's a lot of pride in that room back there. The guys know they're not nearly satisfied, but at the same time they're confident enough not to be overly worried or concerned. Guys are cognizant and aware of what we're doing and not doing. But at the same time, it's the middle of May, man."
Indeed, there is a whole lot of baseball yet to be played. The Nationals view that mostly as a positive thing, especially considering the slow starts still plaguing several key regulars.
Jayson Werth enters tonight's game with a .210 batting average, 60 points below his career mark. Anthony Rendon is hitting .229, 41 points below his career average. Ryan Zimmerman's .237 average right now is 45 points off pace.
Baker insists 40 games isn't nearly large enough of a sample size for those players, not when they have proven track records.
"I don't ever feel like that," he said. "Because most power guys ... they did half their production in about a third of the time. They got a couple months with 10 home runs each month, and they probably during those times have 25-to-30 RBIs. So you can do half your work in about two months' worth of time. It's not even close to time to figure out what kind of year you're going to have. If you go back to Eddie Murray and Ryne Sandberg, you'd have released them in April and May. But when the season ends, you look up and you're at .300, 30 (homers) and 100 (RBIs)."
Zimmerman is the poster child for that philosophy: He's a career .258 hitter from April through June, then a .304 hitter from July through September.
Because of the track record, the 31-year-old first baseman is able to maintain his trademark even keel, in spite of his current struggles.
"It's happened for 10 or 11 years now," Zimmerman said. "I don't even know if I've had a year where basically from April on, from the beginning to the end, it's been this kind of a year (making a straight line with his hand). I usually start slow, that's kind of the way I've always been, and then I get hot usually around July or so. It would be nice one year to just do it from the beginning, but I don't know."