HOUSTON -- It would be tough to imagine anyone appreciating the fun these Washington Nationals are having more than third baseman Ryan Zimmerman.
He was once the face of the franchise, the guy who symbolized the hope that better days were ahead. He was the team's very first Draft pick after it relocated from Montreal to Washington for the 2005 season.
As the Nationals suffered through five straight losing seasons, including back-to-back 100-loss seasons in 2008 and 2009, Zimmerman methodically established himself as one of the best third basemen in the game.
When Major League Baseball was reestablishing itself in the nation's capital, Zimmerman was leading the way.
There would be others. Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond. Jordan Zimmermann and Drew Storen. The Nationals would add veteran talent from other organizations, Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche and others.
Zimmerman was one of those rare players capable of making an impact both offensively and defensively. He twice drove in 100-plus runs for bad teams. He made an All-Star Team and won a Gold Glove. He did things right, too, with community work and working hard to be a role model.
By the time the Nationals took Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper with back-to-back No. 1 picks in 2009 and 2010, the franchise was positioned to take off.
This season, the Nationals have spent the last 77 days atop the National League East, and thanks to a lot of ingredients -- one of the game's best pitching staffs, veteran leadership and a savvy manager in Davey Johnson -- they've answered every challenge.
Meanwhile, attendance is up at Nationals Park, and Zimmerman appears to be having the time of his life. Maybe all the losing and franchise building made him appreciate this sweet season even more.
"It's nice," he said. "I haven't been on a winning team since college [at the University of Virginia]. It's definitely a different feel. It's a lot of fun. It's exciting. I think everyone in here knows we have a chance to do something special."
There are dozens of things that go into making a winning team, and Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo has done a fabulous job filling out the roster, especially with the offseason additions of starting pitchers Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson.
"I mean, we got more talented," Zimmerman said. "We went through all those bad years, and we drafted well. We have a core group of guys that have been together and came up through the system. A lot of us probably were up here a little sooner than we should have been. We had to learn up here together.
"We learned how to play together and went through the bad times. We got better and better each year, little by little. It's kind of a perfect storm of all of us growing up and maturing and becoming better players. Guys like Jayson and LaRoche coming over here. It was a time when a lot of us took that next step at the same time."
Players sometimes talk of "learning how to win" as being one of the factors in getting a team into contention for good. For his part, Zimmerman believes that stuff is overblown. The Nationals are better because they've added more talent.
"I think experience and learning how to win are overrated," he said. "Talent wins. Baseball is baseball whether you're in last place in August or in first place in August. The games I played the last six years are the same as the games I'm playing now. Everyone gets caught up in wondering if they'll be able to handle the pressure. I think it's easier to play in a playoff race. This is exciting. It's a lot easier to come to the park with the bangs and bruises everyone has when you're in first place."
This dream season had a nightmarish beginning for Zimmerman, who was hitting .224 at the end of April and spent 18 days on the disabled list with a sore shoulder. He'd attempted to play through the pain.
When he returned May 8, he was as good as ever, swinging the bat free and easy. He's hitting .288 since, and the Nationals are 46-31 in the 77 games he has started at third.
"We're still a young team," he said. "They've drafted so well, they've completely flipped their Minor League system. We have more guys coming and a really good chance to be good for a really long period of time. Obviously, this year is exciting and fun. We also know we have a good future here."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U.