'New standards' for Nats: 1st place, 3 All-Stars
By JOSEPH WHITE
WASHINGTON (AP) Three All-Stars, first place on the Fourth of July and a 19-year-old sensation who is mature enough to defer to a 40-year-old from another team.
Baseball in the nation's capital hasn't looked this good in decades. And decades. And decades.
Instead of holding news conferences to tell everyone how good they hope to be, the Washington Nationals can finally start bragging about what they've done. The NL East leaders put Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Ian Desmond at the featured table Tuesday to discuss their selections to next week's All-Star game.
"We've set new standards here," Desmond said.
Desmond knows plenty about the previous standards. He was drafted by the franchise when they were still the Montreal Expos, before the 2005 move to Washington and the five last-place finishes in six years that followed. The city was supposedly itching for baseball after a 33-year absence, but attendance was disappointing, local television ratings were abysmal and - with the exception of 2005 - there was always just the one minimum representative at the All-Star game.
Now attendance is up - by 32 percent so far from last year - ratings are on the rise, and the Nationals opened Tuesday's series against the San Francisco Giants with a 3 1/2-game lead over the New York Mets. The starting rotation might legitimately be the best in the baseball, and Strasburg and teenager Bryce Harper have become above-the-title stars, someone you have to watch when they come to town.
"It's hard to break a winning mentality, and it's a lot easier to have a losing one," Strasburg said. "Once we learned how to win together, I think it's really started to stick."
The franchise hasn't had three All-Stars since Mark Grudzielanek, Pedro Martinez and Henry Rodriguez represented the Expos in 1996. Harper is a candidate to earn the final NL spot in fan online voting. If he gets in, it will be the most since the '94 Expos sent five.
And the last time a Washington team finished first in anything? 1933, when the Senators won the AL and lost the World Series to the New York Giants. That was two Washington franchises ago.
"When you go into restaurants, fans are coming up to you and shaking your hand," Desmond said, "saying we appreciate what you've done for us and done for the city."
The Nationals have been promising it would be like this, pointing to 2012-13 as the timeframe to be a contender while their young talent developed. It helped that they hit the jackpot by losing 100 games in just the right years, allowing them to get can't-miss talents Strasburg (2009) and Harper (2010) at No. 1 overall in back-to-back drafts. The outdoor introductory news conference for Strasburg in August 2009 was something to behold - with fireworks exploding over Nationals Park and fans paying $1 for the privilege to watch from the stands.
Strasburg's path to the top of the rotation was detoured for a year by elbow surgery, while Harper's ascension has been unstoppable, his performance in the minors so impressive that the team promoted him well before the front office's carefully planned timetable.
Harper is captivating. He plays at full-speed, daring to be aggressive even when it backfires. But he earned immeasurable respect on Sunday when he said he'd vote for 40-year-old Chipper Jones, who is retiring this year, over himself in the online balloting.
Harper said Tuesday that he received a text message from Jones appreciating the kind words. Still, Harper says he's getting votes from friends and family, and the Nationals have launched a full-fledged vote-for-Harper campaign.
And, as it turns out, there might be room for both Jones and Harper anyway. Jones was selected Tuesday afternoon as an injury replacement for Matt Kemp, leaving Harper among four players vying for the last spot on the NL bench.
"Of course, I want to be there," Harper said. "But if it doesn't work out, I've got hopefully 20 years in my career that I'll get back there."
In fact, Harper wouldn't mind simply having a long mental break at his home in Las Vegas.
"I think it'll be good for me to go home and get away from the world and just be Bryce, be normal, just hang out with the family and get some good home-cooked meals," he said.
One person not voting for Harper is manager Davey Johnson, who wasn't even sure how the voting worked until it was explained to him by reporters.
"Is it a mail-in ballot?" the 69-year-old manager asked.
Told he could vote for Harper online, Johnson said: "I go online for a lot of things, and that's not one of them."
Johnson said Jones should be in the All-Star game and "not someone with 200 at-bats." He'd prefer to see his rookie have those rest days in Vegas.
"I think it would be good for baseball," Johnson said, "to just let him alone and let him play here."
Joseph White can be reached at http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP
Updated July 3, 2012