Arts & Entertainment

Picking Splinters: Nats Regain Mojo

As the summer temperatures begin to trend their way towards a cooler climate, the Nationals are starting to heat up. Finally.

In the past few weeks, Washington has traded its top relief pitcher, Jon Rauch, flat out released its marquee off-season free agent acquisition, Paul LoDuca, and cut a former All-Star shortstop, Felipe Lopez. And entering Wednesday night’s game with the Rockies, the Nationals had won four consecutive games.

Jettisoning veterans is not often the spark plug teams use to ignite late summer drives. Indeed, pennant contenders are looking to add veteran hands this time of year. For example, the Mets and Rockies may both be interested in former National Livan Hernandez to bolster their pitching depth down the stretch.

Instead, the Nationals have gained speed by shedding their extra baggage. Throughout June and July, LoDuca, Lopez and similarly released Johnny Estrada received significant playing time, despite their lack of productivity and despite Washington’s entrenchment at the bottom of the National League East.

With a stated goal of building from within by management, years with no hope of a pennant usually mean a reliance on youth, giving prospects from the minors time to shine and gain experience on the major league level. But with LoDuca, Lopez and Estrada, it was different. By putting the unproductive veterans in the lineup, Washington’s front office hoped it could audition them as trade bait, turning them over to other teams to further fertilize the farm system. But nothing changed. Their struggles continued. It was a perpetual purgatory. The Nationals had nowhere to go. Just pack their bags and shuffle off to the next series, expecting more of the same.

The routine held little appeal for fans. The ballpark is beautiful, but tuning in the team on TV was a practice only masochists could stomach. Do the team’s abysmal TV ratings really need any more analysis than that?

But then Rauch was traded for swift-footed second baseman Emilio Bonifacio and management finally waved the white flag by waiving Estrada, LoDuca and Lopez. In came shortstop Alberto Gonzalez from the Yankees and suddenly the Nats had dropped their ballast, swapping stagnation for speed and a sure-handed middle infield.

Before this streak, the team endured 21 losses in a 24-game stretch. They’ve now won four in a row, with Bonifacio batting .444 and collecting two triples since joining the Nats’ roster.

Finally, with the turnover, the team has gained purpose. There is again an air of excitement with this team, an air of possibility.

The trade audition time given to Lopez and Co. served as a kind of artificial ceiling. Sure, the Nats’ youth could play hard, but playing time would still be given to a moping shortstop and a catcher who struggled to play his own position. It was a thinly veiled dig at Lopez when, after the announcement of the three waiver moves, General Manager Jim Bowden said, “We want players here that are going to hustle and play the game hard and play the game right.” Suddenly the ceiling was gone and a newfound meritocracy was left in its place.

So in comes Bonifacio, with his youthful vim and vigor, flying around the bases at speeds comparable to an Olympic sprinter. And when he steps into the light, what does he have to say?

“Everybody knows we don’t have a good record right now,” Bonifacio told the Washington Times Monday night. “But I feel no matter what, everybody has to do his job. We’re playing good baseball right now.”

It’s a kind of second-spring in a way. Now we get to see what this team can do. In all likelihood, with the exception of first base, the Nationals’ Opening Day 2009 roster will look a lot like the one we will see for the remainder of the season. For perhaps the first time since the team’s illusory 3-0 start to the season, the possibilities are actually exciting.

Still, the future is not now. A last-place finish in the division remains seemingly inevitable. In the winter, moves must be made to bolster the middle of the lineup. But in the meantime, there are signs of life again. The team’s idle time is over. It’s time to move forward once more. And for fans, it’s finally time to enjoy the ride.