Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Adam Dunn is congratulated by Pat Listach after homering in the fourth.
And yet the feeling inside the cramped visitors clubhouse at Wrigley Field wasn't one of exuberance or self-congratulation. No, as well as this team has played through the season's first 22 games, it sincerely feels like it can play far better.
"Oh absolutely," reliever Tyler Clippard said. "We've got a lot of weapons that we haven't even utilized yet. We've had some guys banged up over the course of the month. It just goes to show you, we've had a lot of guys step up. That's what a winning team is all about, having everybody contribute. Once we start firing on all cylinders, it's just going to get even better."
Bet you never imagined the day when the Nationals would be two games over .500 and not even content with that.
This club, though, has loftier goals than mere respectability. It takes the field every single day believing it should win. And when it doesn't win, it seethes.
"If we lose a ballgame, they're irritated," manager Jim Riggleman said. "They're not happy. They don't just say: 'OK, we'll get 'em tomorrow.' It's not like that. They don't just brush it off. They get irritated by it, and I like the fact they get irritated about losing ballgames."
As happy as they were to take two of three from the Cubs, players still were ticked this afternoon about Monday night's 10-inning loss. The opportunity for a three-game sweep on the road was right in front of them, and they felt like they should have accomplished it.
Such is the defining characteristic of the new Nationals. Hardly any of them even realized today's victory ensured their first winning April since 2005. They're too consumed with the immediate task at hand to take notice of the bigger picture.
"Our guys have really stayed focused very well," Riggleman said. "Each day, no matter what's going on, when that umpire says 'Play ball,' our guys are focused on trying to win that game. Not thinking about yesterday or tomorrow or down the road. Just trying to win the game."
That they've managed to win 12 of 22 despite losing two members of the Opening Day rotation to the DL (Jason Marquis and Garrett Mock), despite playing the better part of three weeks now without their best position player (Ryan Zimmerman) and despite going up against three playoff teams from 2009 for a total of 13 games ... well, it's downright astounding.
It's also reason to believe the best has yet to come.
"It's so early," said Adam Dunn, who belted his fourth homer during today's win. "But the positive thing is, we still don't have our 'A' lineup out there. We've got some guys banged up. If we continue to get the pitching that we're getting and playing defense, we're going to be fine."
The Nationals are playing winning baseball because they're getting contributions from just about every guy in uniform.
No Zimmerman? No problem. Alberto Gonzalez, Cristian Guzman and Adam Kennedy have more than picked up the slack.
Not getting much production from right field? It's not such a big deal when Willie Harris, Justin Maxwell and Willy Taveras are playing sterling defense every day.
Marquis on the DL and Opening Day starter John Lannan still fighting to find his groove? Just hand things over to Livan Hernandez (3-1, 0.87 ERA) and Luis Atilano (2-0, 2.25 ERA) and they'll do their part.
"Everybody wants the ball in their hand. Everybody wants to make the next great play. Everybody wants to get the big hit," said Clippard, now 3-0 with an 0.54 ERA in 11 relief appearances. "It's just contagious. That's what winning does. Winning creates more winning. Right now, we're getting a taste of that."
Back on Opening Day, the Nationals felt like they just needed to try to hang on through the season's first two months. Hover around .500 and then hope the expected additions of Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen and Chien-Ming Wang (among others) help this club take the next step.
Well, they've just about completed the first month, and they've managed to do just that. They haven't played anything close to perfect baseball yet, but they're 12-10 and one game out of first place in the NL East.
And as each day passes and the confidence inside their clubhouse grows, these Nationals can't help but wonder whether, after digging themselves into inescapable holes each of the last four Aprils, this hot start could be the preamble to something even bigger.
"Every year, I always say: 'It's the first month. We're losing. We're going to get better,'" catcher Wil Nieves said. "It's fun to see it from the beginning, what we can do if we keep playing baseball like we're capable."