Wait ‘til Three Years from Now: Cards at Nats

As the St. Louis Cardinals come to town for three, this week's baseball draft may be the highlight of the year for die-hard Washington Nationals fans.

The St. Louis Cardinals have just finished a solid month of trading gut-punches, mostly with their brethren of the NL Central. For a so-called "surprise" team, the Redbirds held up pretty well, earning 15 wins in May after 18 in April, and still hold the second-best view in the division. However, some of the first month's gold has begun to turn green in the hands of Cardinals fans.

The Birds' bats have slipped a bit, when not being held by Albert Pujols or Ryan Ludwick, and the term "starting outfielder" is almost a misnomer. Chris Duncan's head-clearing trip to Memphis and Ankiel's bum wing have started a whirl of movement on the roster card, benefitting Schumaker, Barton, and newcomer Joe Mather, but worrying the fan with no eraser on his scorekeeping pencil. Meanwhile, some of the magic our starting pitchers once held – excepting officially ordained  Kentucky Colonels, of course – has turned to flimflam.

However, we still qualify for our "Surprise" title, and earn the weekly dishonor of being rated far below our record by radio pundits and 100-pixel shepherds of the online hive mind. Pity then the poor Washington Nationals, whose shining moment as a breakthrough team was far too brief.

They came to St. Louis in early April with a 3-0 record, riding the draft of a phenomenal opening weekend that saw the christening of their brand new ballpark, one which the Cardinals will now tour for the first time. At the time, we wrote that "no team in baseball has carried the optimism of Spring so blissfully into the regular season as this Nationals squad." Then, with ruthless hearts and relentless bats, the Cardinals stomped their high-hearted opponents for three consecutive wins, completing a rare string in which each of our starting pitchers won consecutive outings.

The five-game streak still stands as our season-long; however, the three-game skid we inflicted upon the Nationals opened like a gushing wound. Those three losses soon became nine consecutive, and then six more losses bled out of the following eight games. In a blink, the upbeat had become the downtrodden yet again, falling to 10 games below .500 after only 20 had been played.

Then, to make matters worse, that lonesome whistle blew.

For Johnny Cash, singing in Folsom Prison, the whistle signified a freedom a prisoner couldn't have, a life of free movement and fancy dining cars. But the torture didn't come from hearing it just once – it came from hearing it every single day, like clockwork, while the man of the song lived out an interminable sentence in a cold, unforgiving cell. Could be the 8:55, the 12:10, or the 5:15. Each one with a different shrill sound, each one reverberating in the bones with a hideous thrill of a life unlived.

For the Washington Nationals, that lonesome whistle sounds in the hearts of their fans every time a star player hits the DL.

The whistle blew for former ace John Patterson for the umpteenth time after a discouraging Spring Training report, and Patterson's career as a National was derailed. The whistle blew for closer Chad Cordero during a difficult spring, and again after a brief bout with good health in April. He has yet to return. The whistle blew once more for first baseman Nick Johnson, who took his customary early exit from his season clutching some body part or another. It blew for Austin Kearns, who announced the need to undergo elbow surgery. Just this week, the haunting whistle has cried loudest for the franchise, as star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman was revealed to have a torn labrum in his shoulder.

The good news for the team is that talented young starting pitchers Shawn Hill and Jason Bergmann have arrived back to the team from their respective rehabs – both had their seasons cut short last year by throwing arm troubles. Hill, a Tommy John recipient three starts after his major league debut in 2004, had become the team's best pitcher last season before bowing out again with soreness in the wing. Bergmann has been occasionally brilliant when healthy, but he too missed time last season with complaints across arms and legs.

These two pitchers join lefty John Lannan as potential cornerstones of the team's future. All three are prospects from Washington's minor league system, one that is relatively rich in pitchers but poor in hitters, as reported by Bill Ladson of MLB.com. The Nationals hold the #9 pick in this year's draft, one which is said to be deep, but lacking in a true #1 pick. This could bode well for a team like Washington with a late top-ten pick and many holes to fill. (Or, things could break right and top-shelf talent could fall as far as the Cardinals' #13, as argued by The Birdhouse's Dustin Mattison.)

With star pick Zimmerman down for the interim, Lannan, Bergmann and Hill are the only fruit of Washington's recent drafts on the major league squad. While having the trio lead this team to a .500 record would be a fantastic surprise, close watchers of the team will be tracking the next wave of youngsters, and will be tuned in during this week's draft, counting ahead three or four years and imagining what a winning team might look like.

If the Nationals do find a gem, here's hoping – purely out of mercy's sake – that the kid doesn't hear that lonesome whistle any time soon.

 

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