Nats' sudden rise to top not a surprise to everyone

KANSAS CITY Tue Jul 10, 2012 1:54pm EDT

Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg (R) is greeted in the team dugout prior to his MLB baseball game against the Colorado Rockies in Washington July 6, 2012. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg (R) is greeted in the team dugout prior to his MLB baseball game against the Colorado Rockies in Washington July 6, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Gary Cameron

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KANSAS CITY (Reuters) - Dan Uggla shook his head, pursed his lips just a little and said he was not buying the notion that the Washington Nationals are one of the surprise teams of 2012.

They are simply too good to be on anyone's list as an eye-opener, he said.

"No, I'm not surprised at all," said the Atlanta Braves All-Star second baseman. "I saw all the moves (general manager) Mike Rizzo made during the off-season.

"You can see the pitchers they have, their offense and the guys that they have in the clubhouse. They're doing exactly what I thought they would do."

At the All-Star break Washington sits atop the National League East, sporting a 49-34 record, good for a four-game lead over the second-place Braves.

They have four All-Stars, pitchers Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, 19-year-old rookie outfielder Bryce Harper, and shortstop Ian Desmond, who chose to sit out Tuesday night's game to rest his strained left oblique.

Perhaps a history lesson explains why many are floored at the Nationals' rise to power.

The franchise has not had a winning season since the Montreal Expos landed in Washington for the 2005 season, finishing last in the division five times.

In fact, when the Washington Senators played in the nation's capital from 1961-71, they had only one winning season, 86-76 in 1969, before falling 22 games below .500 the next year.

"We've had a great first half, everyone is playing well," said Harper, the youngest position player ever to be named an All-Star. "It's a great time not only for us but the town of D.C. and its fans.

"The second half of the season is going to be a lot of fun. Hopefully, we'll make it into the playoffs."

Strasburg and Gonzalez have been outstanding this season and when you throw third starter Jordan Zimmermann into the mix, the Nationals have arguably the top pitching staff in baseball.

Gonzalez, who arrived in Washington this year after four seasons with the Oakland Athletics, said he is enjoying the enthusiasm at Nationals Park, where attendance is up nearly 5,000 per game to just under 30,000.

"Talk to some of the fans out there and ask them how the excitement is," said Gonzalez, a crafty left-hander who has a 12-3 record with a 2.92 earned run average.

"They're out there having fun every game, cheering all the way down to the last out. They're screaming, 'Go Nats' the whole way. That's what you want."

Gonzalez said he knew early on that this year would be special.

"Spring training was definitely an open door for us," said Gonzalez, whose win total is tied for the best in the majors. "We felt the vibe right off the bat. We were having fun and just playing the game right.

"But we're trying to take it one step at a time. We know it's not how you start but how you finish."

The soft-spoken, flame-throwing Strasburg, whose 128 strikeouts is the best in the National League, said he meshes well in the clubhouse with the ebullient Gonzalez.

"He's the polar opposite of me. It's worked really well," he said. "I've learned so much from the guy already and he's probably learned a thing or two from me. We're a great combination."

Strasburg said it was unusual sitting atop the perch looking down at the rest of the N.L. East but, he added, "the more and more we win, the more of a target we have on our backs."

"We have to keep focused. We can't try and do too much out there," he said. "Try and play. Just go out there and have fun. Play hard, day-in and day-out. Try to limit the mental lapses out there.

"If everything happens the way we're hoping to, great. If it doesn't there's room for improvement."

He paused for a moment. He flashed a smile.

"I'll say one thing. It's fun being a National right now."

(Editing by Frank Pingue)

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