Good test for Nats on West Coast

Good test for Nats on West Coast
April 24, 2012, 1:02 pm
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Until enough games are completed this season for us to make a reasonable determination how good the Nationals really are, each week will present a new challenge and an interesting test of this club's legitimacy.

The latest test begins tonight in San Diego, with Davey Johnson's team opening a six-game, West Coast road trip that concludes Sunday in Los Angeles.

Not that these are the two toughest teams the Nationals will face this season (though the Dodgers have gotten off to a fantastic start) but trips out west have never been easy for this franchise.

Consider the Nationals' all-time record at Petco Park (8-14) and Dodger Stadium (5-15). They've won only one series at either ballpark in their seven seasons of existence (2005 in L.A., last season in San Diego).

None of the previous incarnations of the Nats, of course, were as well-equipped to win like this current roster. And the majors' statistically best pitching staff should enjoy working the next week inside cavernous Petco Park and the pitcher-friendly Chavez Ravine, especially with mild temperatures and thick marine air hovering over both ballparks.

The Nationals had better hope the pitching staff continues to lead the way, because there's no worse place in the big leagues to try to get a scuffling lineup going than the West Coast.

"We're not where we need to be, but we're going in the right direction," Johnson said Sunday. "Every day another guy gets feeling a little bit better offensively."

Johnson and his coaching staff will particularly be hoping to see Ryan Zimmerman return to the lineup tonight after missing Saturday's game with mild inflammation in his right shoulder. The 27-year-old third baseman said Sunday the shoulder was feeling "much better" and said there was no doubt in his mind he'd be able to play tonight.

But until Zimmerman's name appears on the lineup card that will be handed to umpires shortly before first pitch at 10:05 p.m. EDT, there will be at least some fear that Zimmerman's injury is more severe than he's acknowledged.

Zimmerman's return to the lineup would do wonders for a Nationals club seeking its sixth consecutive series victory to open the season.

"There's no easy road trip or easy game, but the way we've been playing at home and obviously the start we've gotten off to, I think it would be nice to go out there and continue doing what we're doing," he said. "Our goal is to win every series, whether it's three out of four, two out of three, whatever. I think that's what we want to do everywhere we go. And obviously that's not going to happen all year. That would be the best season ever."

Wait, you mean the Nationals aren't going to maintain a .750 winning percentage and wind up with 120 victories?

"I'm not saying we're not," Zimmerman said with a smile. "But it's not going to be easy."

No, it won't be easy for the Nationals even to cross a 90-win barrier that since 2005 has never been anywhere close to within reach. Their fast start only makes the task all the more challenging, because this team isn't sneaking up on anybody anymore.

"I expect us to contend, and we're contending," Johnson said. "It's a long haul and there'll be ups and downs, but I like the resiliency. We've had some bad days and we've come back and played good. We're not going unnoticed. We no longer slide under the radar."