WASHINGTON, D.C. – It seems like forever ago that Nationals Park was Citizens Bank South, the place where Philadelphia baseball fans traveled en masse to see their hometown team at a time when the Phillies’ actual home park was selling out on a regular basis.
Remember how much it got under the Nationals’ skin that their stadium was being invaded by fans in red hats with the white ‘P’ on the front? Remember how a former Nats ticket executive concocted a scheme to keep Phillies fans away in 2012?
The teams on the field had the best solution to stop the Philadelphia invasions. The young Nationals got good in 2012 and mostly have stayed good ever since. The aging Phillies went bad that same year and haven’t been good since. Phillies fans still trickle down I-95, but not the way they used to and the legion of Nationals fans has grown as the team has won four National League East titles in six years.
Ryan Zimmerman has lived through it all. He is the only player who has been with the Nationals every year since the team moved from Montreal to Washington in 2005 and he can see the division changing again before his eyes.
“You have these teams that have been young for a little while, which is what we went through years ago,” Zimmerman said. “You’re young and you lose and you stockpile talent and you kind of mature and come together as a team. I think you’re starting to see that obviously with Atlanta and Philly and Miami will come down that road in a few years. The Mets have always been a team that has the talent if they can stay healthy.”
Where do the Nationals fit into it all?
That’s an interesting question as the Phillies prepare for their first series against the defending N.L. East champions Friday night at Nationals Park. Ask Zimmerman if the Nats are still the most talented team in the division and he will tell you yes. In fact, he said that even before he hit a home run Thursday that helped the Nats extend their season-high winning streak to five games with a 3-1 win over Pittsburgh. The victory got the Nats back to .500 for the first time since April 11.
Through April, the Nationals did not play good baseball. They finished the month with a 13-16 record and in fourth place in the division.
“I think Aprils are interesting,” Zimmerman said. “It’s such a small sample size, but everyone is so excited about the start of the season so everything gets magnified both ways — good and bad.”
You can say believing what you see in April is for fools, but the last two times the Nationals finished the first month under .500 was 2013 and 2015. Those are the only two seasons they did not make the playoffs since 2012, which was the year they ended the Phillies’ run of five straight division titles.
“At the end of the day, there are 162 games played and to me it is the team that can stay the healthiest for the longest time,” Zimmerman said. “No matter how deep your farm system is or how much depth you have on your roster, if you lose your top players for an extended period of time, it’s just hard to replace them. You can bring people up to replace them for short periods of time, but if you miss significant amounts of time from people you are relying heavily on, it’s just hard to replace them.”
The Nationals have been the least healthy team in the division so far.
Second baseman Daniel Murphy, one of the game’s best hitters in his two seasons with Washington, has not played this season after offseason surgery on his right knee. After missing all but 23 games last season because of a torn ACL injury, outfielder Adam Eaton was the National League’s first player of the week this season, but after just eight games he was back on the disabled list with a deep bone bruise on his left ankle. Third baseman Anthony Rendon, who finished sixth in the MVP voting last season, has not played since April 13 because of a severe toe bruise.
Rendon is the only one of the three that could be back as soon as Friday’s game against the Phillies. Howie Kendrick, a former Phillie you might have missed if you blinked, has filled in admirably for Murphy at second base and Matt Adams has been exceptional replacing Eaton in left field.
If and when Eaton, Rendon and Murphy rejoin Bryce Harper in the lineup, the Nationals will clearly be the most talented offensive team in the division. And with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark, they still have the best starting rotation, too. Jeremy Hellickson, the Nats’ No. 5 starter, was the Phillies’ opening-day starter last season. Hellickson, in his fourth start with his new team, gave the Nationals 5 2/3 scoreless innings Thursday and lowered his earned run average to 3.00.
Hellickson said he had conversations with the Phillies before signing with the Nationals late in spring training. He said one of the reasons he chose the Nats was because he felt they gave him the best chance to be on a winning team for the first time since 2013 when he was with Tampa Bay.
The only goal left for the Nationals, of course, is winning the World Series. It’s possible they never get there, but for now at least they still look like the team to beat in the National League East.