Any of us who went into 2008 with a "counting wins" perspective might be in for a very long summer. The team is still building and in some cases, still guessing as to who will - and won't - make a difference in the coming years.
We still have to look for stories-with-the-story to get a true sense of the team's progression towards respectability.
Like John Lannan's effort in an otherwise dismal 3-0 loss to the (not much better than us) St. Louis Cardinals.
Lannan, who was clearly the best Nats' starter in Spring Training, gets called up from Columbus and is asked to stop the team's three-game losing streak. Well, the Nationals lost, but he was about the most blameless player in a blue hat on Sunday.
Lannan pitched 6.2 innings, giving up 7 hits, 2 runs while striking out 4. Sixty-three percent of his pitches went for strikes and he left the game with a rather nifty 2.70 ERA. So, I'm thinking, what else does this guy have to do to become a permanent member of the Nationals' rotation? No question, he's still going to have his ups and downs, but let's give him some experience at the major league level so he'll be ready to make a difference next year, when things could really be fun.
But Lannan wasn't the only Nats' lefty to impress on Sunday.
Ross Detwiler was lights-out in his first start of the year for the Potomac Nationals. Detwiler (who pitched only 33 innings last year) threw 5 shutout innings against Salem, allowing just 3 hits and a walk while striking out 7. "A man among boys" was the way the Salem Avalanche broadcaster described the situation.
I understand that Jim Bowden wants Detwiler to succeed before promoting him, but if he's not going to be challenged in Potomac, send him north to Harrisburg.
So we've got these two guys - both young, both 6'5", both 200 pounds - and both will be ready to help the Nationals in 2009. But there is someone else who could be ready to make a difference as well.
Mike O'Connor, another [fairly] young, tall lefty.
O'Connor was the only one not considered to be a future major leaguer, and yet he has pitched extremely well both in spring training and in his first start with the Clippers, allowing just two hits and two walks while striking out four in five innings. Remember, before he was injured, he was one of the Nationals most consistent starters in 2006. In his first 12 starts - through the end of June - O'Connor had a record of 3-4, 3.39 in 12 starts, allowing just 49 hits in 58 innings while striking out 45. Over his next four starts, O'Connor gave up 22 runs in 15 innings (13.29 ERA) and ended the year 3-8, 4.80. I think it safe to assume that's when his elbow problems began.
So if O'Connor reverts to form - and perhaps he already has - and can once again get major league batters out, the Nationals could be sitting on a treasure trove of left-handed pitching, especially if Matt Chico's second start was an aberration.
Time will tell.
Let's get back to Matt Chico for just a second. Though his numbers didn't look very good in that first start in Philadelphia, and nothing looked very good against the Cardinals, there are still some very positive signs for the kid. Sure, he's given up 14 hits and 7 runs in 11.1 innings, but he's also struck out 9 and walked just 3. That's 7 strikeouts and 2.4 walks per 9 innings. Last year, he averaged 3.98 walks per 9 innings and just 4.75 walks per 9. He still gives up too many hits, but - regardless of his numbers thus far - he seems to pitching much better in 2008.
This-N-That: Felipe Lopez has started four straight games and the Nationals have lost four straight games. Coincidence? Probably. His defense in left wasn't bad at all - much better than Alfonso Soriano at first - but he continues a downward spiral with his bat. He's now batting .188 (3-16) with a .278 OBP and 5 strikeouts. Certainly, it's a small sample, but I'm not seeing any value here, both trade and on the field .... After a slow start, Ryan Zimmerman has raised his batting average to .290 with 6 hits over the weekend. Amazingly, he has cut down his strikeouts this year, fanning only 3 times in 31 at-bats (once very 10.3 at-bats). For his career, he's struckout once every 5.2 at-bats .... Paul LoDuca has looked really bad at the plate so far (.167) but he's yet to strikeout. I thought this to be an aberration, but no - LoDuca has excellent plate discipline. Over his career, he's averaged just 43 strikeouts per 550 at-bats .... Has anyone else begun to moan and groan when Willie Harris (1-12) comes to the plate? .... It's obvious that Joel Hanrahan wouldn't continue to pitch as well as he did this spring, but really, he's not too far away. Though he has a 6.00 ERA, he's given up just 2 hits in 3 innings while striking out 5. I think Manny Acta is very pleased with his work so far.