WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Washington Nationals remain a step-cousin in the Nation's capital.
On the field, they are scrambling to break even, which is a step ahead of the battle they face in the stands, where on Monday night a crowd of 11,623 for the game with Colorado set a franchise record for fewest tickets sold in the two-plus years of Nationals Park.
Club officials, however, remain upbeat. And with reason.
"It is always tough to be patient, but at least the reward is so obvious and close that the anticipation is fun," said Nationals president Stan Kasten. "It is fun for all of us to know how close we are even if it might not be visible to fans. We understand that. We also understand the steps we need to take to get to the long-range level we envision."
The Nationals also understand the hole they are in was a long time being dug. They have finished in last place in the NL East five of the last six years, underwent a scandal about their Latin American operation a year ago, and then saw general manager Jim Bowden fired, eventually replaced by Mike Rizzo, who has a strong scouting background.
The first tangible signs of the foundation for the future man the left side of the Nationals infield -- third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the first-round draft choice in 2005, and rookie shortstop Ian Desmond, the No. 3 pick in 2004.
And there's about to be a reloading of the pitching staff.
Stephen Strasburg, the first player selected in June, and Drew Storen, selected 10th overall, are being refined at Double-A Harrisburg with the anticipation of a midseason recall.
Jordan Zimmermann, the second-round pick in 2007, should be back from reconstructive right elbow surgery in midseason, and lefty Ross Detwiler, the No. 1 draft choice in 2007, is also expected back by midseason after undergoing surgery for a torn hip labrum.
"Small crowds and losing are painful, but better feelings are just around the corner,'' Kasten said. "We're not talking years down the road anymore. We talking months. We're talking about the second half this year.
"What's most important is that (the young) pitchers get it. Could Strasburg pitch here right now? Of course. But he will be better prepared when he gets here. There are things he still needs to work on. For instance, men on base. He didn't have much experience with that in college. Think about it. It makes sense.''
Not that Strasburg is getting a lot of experience pitching with men on base in the minor leagues either. After working five more shutout innings on Wednesday, Strasburg has a 0.73 ERA to show for his three minor-league starts.
It is all about making sure the strong young arms are ready for the big-league challenge and don't take a step backward once they arrive.
Atlanta scout Tim Conroy, who went directly from high school to the big leagues with Oakland in 1978, said this spring that the big-league challenge isn't about physical ability, but rather, mental ability.
Highly touted pitchers rarely, if ever, lost in high school and college competition. They also pitched only once a week. In the big leagues, the competition is at an elite level, and the every-fifth-game routine becomes a grind over the course of six months. There also are expectations and a public stage that dwarfs anything in amateur baseball.
Time in the minor leagues helps a pitcher adjust.
"When you see the ability, there is the urge to get them here, but you have to be realistic, and you want them to be prepared to handle what you are about to throw at them,'' said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman.
With Ubaldo Jimenez's no-hitter at Atlanta on Saturday, Colorado finally has reached the no-hit club. That leaves the New York Mets, Tampa Bay and San Diego Padres as the only teams to have never had a pitcher throw a no-hitter in their uniform.
The Mets have a no-hit history, but it has been for developing pitchers who have thrown no-hitters -- a total of 10 in fact -- for other teams. Nolan Ryan threw a major-league record seven no-hitters with the Angels (four), Houston (one) and Texas (two). Mike Scott, with Houston; Tom Seaver, with Cincinnati; and Dwight Gooden, with the Yankees, had one each. Each of the four were originally signed by the Mets.
The Padres had their closest flirtation on July 21, 1970 when San Diego right-hander Clay Kirby had a no-hitter through eight innings. But the late Preston Gomez, manager of the Padres, hit for Kirby in the bottom of the eighth because the Padres were losing 1-0 against the Mets. Reliever Jack Baldschun gave up a leadoff single to Bud Harrselson in the ninth. Gomez explained his concern was winning the game -- which the Padres could not.
And Gomez was consistent. Four years later, managing Houston, he also hit in the eighth inning for Don Wilson, who had a no-hitter going, because the Astros were trailing Cincinnati 1-0. Mike Cosgrove replaced Wilson on the mound and gave up a leadoff single to Tony Perez in the ninth.
Miguel OIivo caught Ubaldo Jimenez's no-hitter, and Jeff Kellogg was the same plate umpire. Coincidence? Olivo was the catcher and Kellogg the umpire when Anibal Sanchez of Florida no-hit Arizona on Sept. 6, 2006.
Jimenez is the fourth Dominican pitcher to throw a no-hitter, the most of any country outside the United States. Jose Jimenez, with St. Louis, no-hit Arizona on June 25, 1999. Ramon Martinez, with the Los Angeles Dodgers, no-hit Florida on July 14, 1995. Juan Marichal no-hit the Houston Colt 45s on June 15, 1963.
Ubaldo Jimenez and Olivo became the second Dominican battery to team up in a no-hitter, joining Jose Jimenez and Alberto Castillo of the Cardinals.
Atlanta general manager Frank Wren says left-hander Kenshin Kawakami "has a feel" for the major leagues now, and Wren feels Kawakami will have a strong season for the Braves. The 34-year-old veteran of pitching in his native Japan had a 3.33 earned-run average after the All-Star break last year, an indication, Wren said, that Kawakami adapted to the size of the major-league baseball.
Wren said the baseballs used in the Japanese professional leagues are smaller, have higher seams and covers that are not as slick as the ones used in the major leagues.
"When he first came over his movement disappeared, but as a veteran pitcher he had the ability to adjust," said Wren. "This spring, he was a different guy.''