|Washington's Danny Espinosa celebrates the winning run with teammate Jayson Werth. (AP)|
WASHINGTON -- The games will get tougher. The pressure will go higher.
The 69-year-old manager knows that, even if the kids playing for the Nationals don't realize it yet.
They're learning, Davey Johnson said after Monday night had turned into Tuesday morning. They're young, and they're learning.
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And learning has rarely been this much fun.
That's how this season has gone for the Nationals, though. They're learning, and they're loving it, all at the same time.
"It's been a blast already," closer Tyler Clippard said after the latest wild win, Monday night's 5-4, 13-inning triumph over the second-place Braves. "It's only going to get more fun.
"We're having a blast."
They have the best record in the game, a full 30 games over .500 at 76-46. They have a six-game lead over the Braves, and the computers at coolstandings.com say they have a 99.4 percent chance of making the playoffs.
No one has missed the playoffs when it was that sure a thing since ... well, since last year, when the Red Sox were at one point a 99.6 percent certainty to make it to October.
For the record, there was no sign of any beer or fried chicken in the Nationals clubhouse Monday. No sign of panic.
"We're a no-panic kind of team," Clippard said.
We don't really know that yet, because there's really been no reason for the Nationals to panic yet. Even the biggest series in D.C. in 79 years (or is it 67?) arrived with a lot more pressure on the visiting Braves, who have a lot of ground to make up if they want to win the division (and also have memories of last year's collapse to erase).
It's the Braves who have been in the position lately of hoping someone else beats the Nationals, while the Nationals haven't felt a need to sweat every game the Braves are playing.
To hear Nationals players tell it, they weren't even fully focused on the Braves-Dodgers game Sunday, when a long rain delay at Nationals Park gave them a chance to watch their closest (and now only serious) pursuer.
"We watched, but it's not like it was on all the TV's [in the clubhouse]," Drew Storen said.
There'll be time for that in September.
"Even then, if we win, it doesn't matter what they do," he said.
The Nationals give you that sense of confidence, to the point where Clippard said it was "only a matter of time" before they won Monday night's marathon.
Their wise manager sees through some of it, noting that Jordan Zimmermann, his 26-year-old starter, seemed to be rushing a lot more than usual Monday night. Same with his young hitters.
"They're trying to crush every ball every at-bat," Johnson said.
He said the emotions turned "almost like a playoff game," which he saw as both a good and a bad sign.
Good, if the Nationals learn that it's just about playing the game, the way they've played games already for the first 4 1/2 months of the season.
"We're very young," Johnson said. "This is great. The learning curve."
By the end, the Nationals could look out at their right-field bullpen and see starter Edwin Jackson warming up to pitch a 14th inning. Because the rushing Zimmermann only made it through five innings, Johnson had already run through his entire bullpen.
Jackson threw 103 pitches on Saturday -- "I didn't throw that many, did I?" he said -- but he told Johnson he was available if needed.
"I wasn't doing it for heroism," he said. "The bullpen was done. And these aren't necessarily must-wins, but they're games you want to win."
Jackson, of course, is one Nationals player who has been through a pennant race before. A bunch of them, actually, all the way back to his time with the 2008 Rays, and all the way up to last year's World Series run with the Cardinals.
"The way I feel, there's no pressure on us," he said.
Not yet, certainly, but there are bigger games to come for this team.
They could come in the next few weeks, if the Braves can find a way to tighten things in the division race. They may not come until October.
One way or the other, the Nationals are heading for games where there really will be a "playoff atmosphere," games where there will be way more at stake for them than there was Monday.
The manager knows it. The manager keeps preaching.
His young team is learning, he says.
And learning has rarely been this much fun.