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The Nationals are fun (and good), even if Friday night's loss wasn't

By Danny Knobler | Baseball Insider
With players like Ryan Zimmerman, the Nats have more weapons than just Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. (Getty Images)

WASHINGTON -- Remember, we only said that this was the most anticipated series in Nationals history.

Not the most important.

That's the fun thing for this fun team. They've already proven to us that they deserve to be taken seriously, that they deserve the support they're starting to get, and that they're not just Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg and 23 other guys.

They're good, they're getting better, and there will be more "most anticipated" series to come.

And not all of them will begin with 7-2 losses to the Yankees, as this one did.

If we didn't already believe in the Nationals, if we hadn't just seen them go 6-0 on a tour of the American League East (just the fourth team ever to do that, and the first National League team), then maybe we'd look at this weekend as a chance to judge them.

Or for them to judge themselves.

They don't need that, and we shouldn't.

"We were already aware that we were talented," Brad Lidge said Friday afternoon. "Now we're realizing that we're good."

They still need to prove that they can generate enough offense, and eventually they'll need to prove that they can hold up in a pennant race. But this weekend really isn't about either of those things.

If this weekend is about anything meaningful, it's that the young Nationals get another chance to experience what the Yankees experience pretty much every day: Big crowds, big attention and some expectations.

"You look over there, that's the team that's been through it forever," Ryan Zimmerman said. "You can look over there and watch them, and try and learn."

These teams could hardly be more different, even though they came into this weekend with matching six-game winning streaks matching first-place spots atop their division. The Elias Sports Bureau said it was the first time since September 1968 in Detroit that a Yankee team on at least a six-game winning streak had met an opponent that had also won that many in a row, but we didn't need Elias to point out the differences.

"The Yankees have the experience of what they do," Lidge said. "We have the energy of what we're doing."

Lidge calls it a "teenager energy, because we have a teenager on our team."

It's true. If Derek Jeter represents what the Yankees are (or at least how they see themselves), the 19-year-old Harper represents what the Nationals are (or at least how they see themselves).

They get the thrill of experiencing things for the first time. We get the pleasure of watching them do it.

People are starting to catch on to this team. Friday's sellout crowd was partly Yankee-driven -- there were loud cheers every time the Yankees scored, and ovations when Robinson Cano entered as a pinch hitter and when David Robertson made his first appearance off the disabled list -- but it wasn't as if the Yankee fans drowned out the Nationals fans all night.

The Nationals weren't complaining, anyway. They were still impressed that they saw some of their own fans last week at Fenway Park and at Toronto's Rogers Centre.

"I'd never seen that before," said Zimmerman, who has been in the big leagues with the Nats since 2005. "We have more of a following than we've ever had."

The following will likely grow, and it should.

"I sit there in the bullpen and watch us, and we're an exciting team," Lidge said. "I would buy a ticket to watch us play any game at any time."

People regularly buy tickets to watch the Yankees, who have already played before 13 sellout crowds on the road this season (while selling out just four home games).

"America likes winners, and the Yankees win," Zimmerman said. "They have a great fan base."

The Nationals aren't complaining, in part because they really do see their own fan base developing as they start to show they can win. Manager Davey Johnson, who often compares this team to his Mets teams of the early 1980s, offered a different comparison Friday.

"When I came to Baltimore [in 1965], it was a football town," he said. "We started winning, and Baltimore became a baseball town."

Washington isn't a baseball town yet. Perhaps it never will be.

But this weekend it has just a little of that feeling. It's why you kind of hope that the Nationals play their part, even as you know that it doesn't matter that much whether they do.

They really didn't on Friday, even though this game was tight at 2-1 through six innings. We saw only small flashes of that "teenager energy" Lidge referred to.

We know it's there. We've seen it. They've shown it.

And as nice as it would be for them to show it again against the Yankees, we'll still believe it even if they don't.

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