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Tuesday, June 15, 2010
For Nationals, the future is now

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

WASHINGTON -- It was barely more than a week ago. It seems like about a century.

It seems like it because the Washington Nationals were still playing a baseball game without a fellow named Stephen Strasburg on their roster -- for the last time.

It was a few minutes before 5 p.m. on Sunday, June 6. Mark down that date. Ian Desmond bounced to second for the final out of a tough extra-inning loss to the Reds. And with that, Nationals president Stan Kasten turned toward a friend and announced:

"Thank goodness that era is behind us."

Boy, he got that right.

Stephen Strasburg
Combining his 2010 pro numbers, Stephen Strasburg is 9-2 with a 1.46 ERA and 87 K's in 67 2/3 innings.
Just two nights later, the most important era in the life of this franchise began.

Strasburg headed for the mound. The thunder in the ballpark rattled Richter scales from Annandale to Aberdeen. The ratings counters at Nielsen headquarters were calling the repairmen to make sure the equipment hadn't run amok. T-shirts were whooshing off the racks. Standing-room tickets were disappearing faster than Terrmel Sledge. And it was finally official …

The Washington Nationals had rejoined the baseball solar system.

It was the biggest, most electrifying night of baseball in Washington since … uhhhh … since … well, "never, probably," guessed the pre-Strasburg face of this franchise, Ryan Zimmerman. "Right?"

Well, you know what? We think he's right. The correct answer might really be: Never.

You could make a case for the first game after the franchise moved to D.C. from Montreal, back in 2005. You could make a case for Opening Day in Nationals Park in 2008. You could make a case for Oct. 10, 1924, the day Walter Johnson beat the Giants in relief to clinch the only World Series the old Washington Senators ever won.

But Stephen Strasburg Day was different from any day ever previously witnessed in the 75 seasons of big league baseball in Washington. Why? Because it grabbed the eyeballs of every baseball fan alive and pointed them toward heretofore uncharted territory -- toward this team and this pitcher.

And now this is the Nationals' chance -- to hang on to every one of those eyeballs and never let go.

"That," said their affable mad bomber of a first baseman, Adam Dunn, "was how fans are made."

"You know, we've had sellouts before, but not with our fans," Zimmerman said. "When Boston was here last year, we sold out every game. When the Phillies were here, even for Opening Day, there were almost more of their fans than ours. So this is the first time where there was a sellout and it was our fans. That just shows you that they do love baseball in this town."

And if that's true, it was a better-kept secret, before last week, than how the Kardashian sisters got so famous. Before Strasburg burst through their door, the Nationals were 14th in their league in attendance this year, ahead of only the Marlins and Pirates. They were 12th last year. They were 13th in 2008 -- the season their beautiful new ballpark opened. So this was a group about as unfamiliar with the concept of in-stadium electricity as any team in baseball.

Ryan Zimmerman
Ryan Zimmerman, third in the NL in OPS (.977) , won his first NL Gold Glove award in 2009.
"I can remember one day last year, where we had about a three-hour rain delay against the Braves," Dunn reminisced, not so fondly. "I think I counted 73 people in the stands. So that was pretty un-electric."

And outside the gates, the team's local TV ratings the past two years were the worst in baseball. At one point in 2008, according to The Washington Post, the Nationals' radio ratings had crashed to such depths that there were more people actually sitting in their ballpark watching their games than were out there listening to their games. And that, friends, is just about impossible.

So the arrival of Strasburg is more than merely an opportunity for this team to sell a bunch of shirts and fill up the seats every five days. This, said GM Mike Rizzo, is "a watershed moment for us."

"I grew up in Indianapolis, and in my family, we were Colts fans before they got Peyton [Manning]," said rookie pitcher Drew Storen. "But most people around us weren't. They were Bears fans or Bengals fans. Then Peyton got there, and they all became Colts fans. The same thing could happen here. This could be a real benchmark for this team."

There is no such thing, remember, as a lifelong Nationals fan -- "unless," Kasten joked, "they're under 5." So this is this franchise's chance to lure these strangers in to check out The Phenom and then hang on to their hearts forever.

To pull that off, though, it's going to take more than one guy with a bionic arm. The mission, for this team, has to be to become something much bigger and brighter than just Stephen Strasburg's backup band. If this is merely another version of the '09 Royals with Zack Greinke or the '72 Phillies with Steve Carlton, this team's Strasburg-ian era will go down as the biggest missed opportunity of modern times.

So the mission is to assemble a team around this fellow that can win, and win a lot, and win for as long as Strasburg has a W on his cap. But that leads us to the biggest bulletin of all:

That anticipated time is approaching more rapidly than you think.

"This team is on the right track," said one scout who covers the Nationals' system. "A lot of good things are happening there. They have a chance to really make a big splash in that division, the way they're going."

Check the standings, and you find a team that's only two games under .500 -- a monstrous step up after two straight 100-loss seasons. Check the runs-scored column, and you find a lineup that has scored more runs than the Phillies and Tigers.

Dunn The future for us is now -- and not in a couple of years. It's here.

-- Nationals slugger Adam Dunn
Check the left side of the infield, where Zimmerman has emerged as the best third baseman in the National League at age 25, and Desmond, the rookie shortstop, has "made a significant difference," another NL scout said.

Check the middle of this lineup, where Dunn leads the NL in total bases, where Josh Willingham trails only Albert Pujols in on-base percentage and where Zimmerman ranks third in the league in OPS.

And check that pitcher's mound, where Strasburg works, where Storen (1.54 ERA) is on track to be the closer of the future and where rehabbing staff-changers Jordan Zimmermann and Chien-Ming Wang should be back in this rotation at some point in the second half if all goes well.

But most of all, check out how the vibe around this team has done a U-turn northward -- and not just because Strasburg showed up for work, either.

"I'm amazed at the culture change," another NL scout said. "This is a classic case of addition by subtraction. They got rid of all their knuckleheads, and it's made a big difference. You go watch their club, and the lineup is very similar to last year, with the exception of Desmond and Pudge [Rodriguez]. The bullpen, except for Storen, has a lot of guys who were afterthoughts. Yet it feels like a different club."

Well, that's no coincidence, and it's no mirage. That culture-renovation project was the No. 1 item on the mission statement of the architect of this turnaround, Rizzo.

It was only 15 months ago that Rizzo's predecessor, Jim Bowden, was forced to resign in the middle of spring training as the heat from a Latin American signing-bonus scandal was threatening to engulf him and his franchise. It's just 10 months since the Nationals zapped the "interim" from Rizzo's title and made him the "permanent" GM.

And "When you look at what they've done since Mike's had that job," said one of the scouts quoted earlier, "it's been an amazing 15 months."

No doubt. Nearly everything that has happened to this team in the past year has Rizzo's unmistakable stamp on it. The dumping of mismatched parts such as Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes. The acquisition of energizers such as Nyjer Morgan. The import of professional stabilizers such as Livan Hernandez and Adam Kennedy. The complete overhaul of an entire bullpen. The decision to hang on to productive bats, and teammates, such as Dunn and Willingham, who once seemed as if they were just passing through.

Mike Rizzo
Mike Rizzo has made several key moves since becoming the Nationals' permanent GM in August.
Add it all up, and the talent level isn't that dramatically different from the recent past. But all of a sudden, this roster is constructed around pieces that seem to fit, personalities that clearly mesh and a roster that is ace-ing chemistry. And manager Jim Riggleman, in his first full-time managerial gig since the '99 Cubs, has brought a sense of toughness and purpose that has weaved it all together.

"We set goals in spring training, Jim and I, to prepare to win and expect to win," Rizzo said. "The toughest part is to go out and win. It's easy to be that team that people hate to play against and lose. It's tough to go out there and play a great game and scrap and fight and then win the game. But that's the attitude that has to change. And if I could put my finger on one thing I've brought to the organization, I think I've changed the mindset and the culture.

"I think we've brought in guys who are winners, guys who prepare to win and want to win. And when they leave the clubhouse and go onto the field, they know that they can win the game. It's not a stated thing. It's a feeling inside you … . And I think that's where we're headed."

When the GM dreams about where they're headed, he doesn't dream small, either. But to make those big dreams come true, he knows the real work needs to be done in a farm system that Rizzo frankly describes as having been "in shambles" when he arrived, after MLB's sale of this club to current managing principal owner Ted Lerner in 2006.

"You know, I was at the ground floor of the franchise in Arizona," said Rizzo, who spent seven years as the highly regarded scouting director for the Diamondbacks before moving on to Washington as an assistant to Bowden. "And the future was farther away here than I felt like it was in Arizona. We were actually below ground zero."

But roll the clock forward, and things are changing. Now here they are, with Strasburg, Storen and Desmond already in the big leagues … with what one scout described as "guys who can play at every level" of their system … with great scouting minds such as Roy Clark and Kris Kline now working alongside Rizzo … and with a potentially franchise-altering bomber on the horizon if they can sign the first pick in this year's draft, Bryce Harper.

And that's not all, of course. Now they also have Stephen Strasburg, rocking their world every fifth day in the baseball remake of "The LeBron James Story."

Just so you know what we're seeing here, there isn't a lot of precedent for one 21-year-old baseball player single-handedly performing CPR on a once-moribund franchise. But we're seeing it here, if those 35,607 extra bodies Strasberg has put in the seats in two games (compared with the previous average attendance in D.C. and Cleveland) tells us anything.

"That just doesn't happen," Kasten said, "in this sport."

But it's happening right now, in front of our eyeballs. And though the whole sport of baseball can see the lightning bolts Strasburg has unleashed, it's the team he already has re-energized that has never been happier to feel those thunderclaps.

"The future for us is now -- and not in a couple of years," Dunn said. "It's here."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.