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Nationals finding their footing and their place

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports
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Washington's Anthony Rendon, right, celebrates with Ryan Zimmerman after scoring in the sixth inning Saturday night. (Getty Images)

WASHINGTON – The sweat is sneaky here this time of year. It feints. It leans to coy. It hides in places so intimate Anthony Weiner would not put it in a selfie.

So, basically, the sweat is there but it's not, least not until the air conditioning hits it, or the evening breeze, at which point comes the realization, "Damn, I seem to be sweaty."

Which is not what this is about, necessarily.

Except here are the Washington Nationals, the most interesting team in the game if not yet the best, and as one scout put it Saturday night, "I keep waiting for them to win more. Like they're missing something."

That's been the conversation, though the Nationals are not yet to 100 games, are tied for first place in the NL East, are fully healthy for the first time since opening day, and are endeavoring to play to the World Series expectations – not ours, but theirs. It's just, well, maybe they should be winning more, as if it were that simple, as if the Nationals themselves hadn't thought of that.

Maybe it's the climate, and maybe it's their faith in their roster, and maybe it's the blimp's view of this thing, but they do not seem to be sweating it. If they were, you would not know. That comes later, if at all.

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The Nationals' Anthony Rendon catches a pop fly in the third inning Saturday night against the Brewers. (Getty Images)

The Nationals' Anthony Rendon catches a pop fly in the third inning Saturday night against the Brewers. (Getty …

What makes them interesting in the meantime is who they are. That is, a collection of developing players, some of them branded superstars before they got here, alongside the grinder types who make the season go, alongside the men of stature and polish who provide (or try to provide) the proper direction, alongside those heavy expectations, all led by a rookie manager, all set in a place where sweat comes with the season and the game. Yeah, it's time for the Nationals to win again. Sometimes it appears they will, such as on Saturday night, when they stacked three hours of exceedingly competent at-bats against the Milwaukee Brewers, chased Brewers starter Matt Garza after 42 pitches and a single out, and won 8-3. And it all seemed so easy, the way it was supposed to in a division they were supposed to throttle. They are 27-16 since late May, 11-5 since late June, the kind of baseball that over time generally wins divisions.

Things come up, however. Things always come up.

Wilson Ramos, the catcher, came out of the first game of the season because of a broken bone in his hand. In mid-April, Ryan Zimmerman broke his thumb. He missed six weeks. At the end of April, Bryce Harper fell out for two months because of a thumb injury. Before Harper returned 2 ½ weeks ago, the opening day lineup had spent all of seven innings together. Doug Fister, a very good rotation's best starter, did not throw his first official pitch as a National until May 9.

Other things come up.

Harper was benched for not hustling. When he returned from the disabled list, he gained everyone's attention with his contrarian views on manager Matt Williams' lineup, which, incidentally, had no influence on manager Matt Williams' lineup.

Other things don't.

Zimmerman has bounced from third base to left field and back to third base, all while surviving an ailing right shoulder, and all without the slightest complaint. He is the on-field conscience of the team.

"You can expect whatever," Zimmerman said. "That's why we play such a long season."

If D.C. is thrumming its fingers waiting on excellence from its ballclub, Zimmerman said, he understands. He also prefers that to the alternative.

"I was here," he said, "when they expected us to lose 100 games."

The issues come and go. They trudge into Williams' office and trudge out. They aren't so different than the issues that trudge into other managers' offices, except in how they are settled. Williams, it can be said, has maintained an easy, reassuring manner. The job isn't easy. The job when you've never done it before is less easy.

He was saying this week that he used to spend his All-Star breaks in the batting cage, continuing the player's self-evaluation. This break, spent as a manager, did not pass similarly. It's too soon, he said. There are more games to play, plenty of them, he said, and one in particular – the next one.

Regardless, Williams is out in front of an exceedingly compelling team and story, of a summer that will need the likes of Harper, who returned from the break with a new upright batting stance (and is 4-for-7 with a double and home run in it), and Stephen Strasburg, who returned from the break with the same great stuff and the same head-scratching result, and Anthony Rendon, the 24-year-old second baseman who has continued the Nats' run of impactful drafts.

Williams seems content to leave it at that. Manage the people, manage the games, count 'em up at the end.

"We always talk about not looking around the corner," he said. "I refuse to do that. So I will get to the corner, stop and then look. I'm not going to peek. I never did that as a player and I won't do that now.

"What I need to do is be the best I can be today. The job that I do as the manager is for other people to judge. Not me. … Ultimately, I'll be judged by our win-and-loss record anyway. That's all that matters."

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