Washington Post: Remember when the Nats sprouted into a delight? It’s happening again.

These scrappy Nationals and their relentless attitude could be starting another wild ride for D.C.


Perspective by Thomas Boswell

Updated May 6, 2024 at 8:30 p.m. EDT


In baseball, you build a culture before you build a contender. That’s how it felt in 2011 when the Washington Nationals changed from a team of losers to a club that battled to approach .500 at 80-81. That club established the internal team accountability — and the sense of personal connection — that helped the Nats have nearly the best record in baseball over the next eight years.


It’s happening again. Whether the process leads to great teams and a World Series or just plenty of good, exciting contending clubs that play with energy and élan will be a subject for the rest of this decade. But it’s likely to be one of those two pleasant outcomes, though few except Nationals fans have noticed.


In their past 100 games, since mid-July of 2023, the Nats are 50-50. That alone deserves attention for a team with so much of its future still playing in the minors. But the news is better than that. Last year, the Nats’ final 33-33 push required scrappiness and a few wins’ worth of good luck and good managing.


This year, their 17-17 start has a more substantial tone because every day, regardless of the score, the Nats have been engaged, resilient and, in Manager Dave Martinez’s word, “relentless” despite many injuries and a brutal schedule. Their two-game series with Baltimore this week concludes 21 straight games against clubs from the 2023 playoffs. They’re 11-8.


The Nats haven’t been lucky this year. Two-thirds of the projected Opening Day lineup has had significant injuries: Josiah Gray, Keibert Ruiz, Lane Thomas, Nick Senzel, Victor Robles and Joey Gallo. Last year’s RBI leader, Joey Meneses, has zero homers. Patrick Corbin tries, but he is his ERA (6.45) and doesn’t even profile as a plausible lefty reliever on a team that has none. The Nats have been forced to use rookies in the lineup (utility infielder Trey Lipscomb and center fielder Jacob Young) and the rotation (Mitchell Parker).


Low-rent players acquired to be backups or part of platoons have had to play extensively, including Jesse Winker (18 RBI), Ildemaro Vargas (a .310 average), Riley Adams and Eddie Rosario, who hit a game-winning homer Sunday after entering the game 7 for 73.


The rotation has been steady but lacks even one real innings eater. As a result, a good, fairly deep bullpen has been worked hard. Kyle Finnegan (1.88 ERA, 11 for 12 converting saves), Hunter Harvey (2.45), Dylan Floro (0.52), Derek Law (3.32) and Jordan Weems are on pace to pitch in at least 71 games.


If Martinez had just one lefty reliever, even one made out of papier-mâché to prop up in the corner, he might sleep better. Somehow, he manages around it.


Despite all this, the Nats have an MLB-leading 12 come-from-behind wins. Their dugout is usually so enthusiastic that coaches Gerardo (Baby Shark) Parra and Sean (Doctor) Doolittle, those energizers on the 2019 champs, seem to fit right in. The years have shown that Martinez may rank with Dusty Baker in that unmeasurable but essential managerial skill: clubhouse whisperer.


The comebacks would be impressive if the Nats could hit. But with their two leading RBI men from ’23, Thomas and Meneses, producing little and the two semi-powerful lefty bats they added over the winter, Gallo and Rosario, hitting barely .100, the Nats look — on paper — as though they should never score again.


Yet, somehow, they do. They will steal everything but your sanity. They are on pace for 272 stolen bases, just behind the larcenous Reds. Sure, the new rules help. But neither Maury Wills nor Lou Brock nor Rickey Henderson ever played on a team that stole 272 bases.


Luis García Jr., left, embraces Eddie Rosario in the dugout. (John McDonnell/AP)

Young, CJ Abrams and Thomas are capable of 40 to 60 steals, depending on how much they play and how much of a beating the Nats are willing to allow their bodies to take. Luis García Jr. and Lipscomb are 20-to-30-steal types. Believe it or not, the Nats’ top two prospects — 6-foot-7 James Wood and Dylan Crews — are speed merchants who project as 30-plus-steal players at a minimum. Robles is fleet, too.


Who knows how far General Manager Mike Rizzo planned ahead for this speed onslaught? Or whether it was an accident. But if a roster of Young, Crews, Thomas, Abrams, García, Lipscomb and Wood ever gets on the field together, it may be the fastest team I’ll ever see except for Whitey Herzog’s Runnin’ Redbirds in the 1980s.


With their flash-mob offense — the bases seem empty for an hour, then suddenly crazed Nats are running around everywhere — Washington uses double steals, delayed steals of home plate and hit-and-runs and is always looking to take the extra base. Recently, Abrams, an emerging star trying to figure out how to be selective enough at the plate to be a supernova, scored from third base on a “wild pitch” only 12 feet from home plate.


I saw an old tape of Jackie Robinson doing that. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody do it in real life.


Rizzo says Washington is building its next World Series team. He should think so. But those who follow the team shouldn’t have their fun spoiled by applying the highest possible standard before being happy.


You need superstars to be a super team. Right now, the Nats, potentially, have just one in Abrams. Eventually, they will need a handful of ’em. Lefty MacKenzie Gore may polish up into one, in the Gio Gonzalez mold. He has the stuff, a necessary but hardly sufficient condition. Wood, who’s ripping up Class AAA, may be a mid-order beast. But two or three high-end free agents will be needed, too.


Until those prospects, free agents and trade pieces start arriving — and it won’t be this year — it may be useful to recall one of my most painful lessons as a baseball writer. In 1988, the Orioles went 54-107. The next spring I wrote an entire magazine story making fun of their hopelessness and touting their chances to be the worst team in history.


Those ’89 Orioles went 87-75 and were still in the playoff race on the final weekend of the season. Cal Ripken Jr. had 93 RBI. Nobody else had more than 70, but 12 players had 25 or more. There was no big star, just constant roster patching, unlikely heroes and Oriole Magic for six months.


Last year, Arizona made the playoffs with just 84 wins, then reached the World Series. The Diamondbacks were awful in ’21 (110 losses), then went 74-88 in ’22. Now they’re 15-20 and lookin’ poorly. Where did ’23 come from? But they get to keep the flag.


Some of my favorite teams are the overachievers, the rebuilding organizations, whether they make it all the way back or not — clubs such as these Nats with (I just counted ’em) 11 vets who signed contracts for not much more than the rookie minimum, so they could stay in the game and — oh, please — play their way into another contract next year. Where? Anywhere.


Someday, maybe, the Nats will be Wood and Crews, Brady House and Robert Hassell III, Cade Cavalli and Jarlin Susana, plus some $100 million-plus free agents.


Might be quite a team. Or not quite.


Either way, the Nats of the past 100 games have been quite a team in their own unnoticed way — quite entertaining and often quite promising. They’re not must-see TV yet. But if you look away, there’s no telling what you might miss.

Nash Sanderson