Nationals are embracing lofty expectations

Nationals are embracing lofty expectations
March 31, 2013, 5:00 pm
Share This Post

Asked to make their MLB season predictions, four of seven baseball experts from Sports Illustrated picked the Nationals to win the World Series. A fifth picked them to reach the Fall Classic.

Three of four experts from Yahoo! Sports concurred: The Nationals will win the World Series.

And over at ESPN, 16 of 43 experts picked the Nats to win it all, 29 of 43 picked them to reach the Series, 38 of 43 picked them to win the NL East and all 43 picked them to at least reach the playoffs.

Talk about pressure, huh?

"Hey, it's better than being picked last, isn't it?" Davey Johnson mused last week from the dugout at Space Coast Stadium when informed how nearly every major publication out there has tabbed his team as the sport's preseason favorite.

Johnson, of course, has never shied away from the spotlight. If anything, the overly lofty expectations placed on the Nationals this season were ignited by their 70-year-old manager, who at the Winter Meetings in December declared the team's new mantra: "World Series or Bust."

Ever since, the Nationals have been the darlings of national media outlets, scouts and Vegas oddsmakers, all of them convinced D.C. will be home to baseball's best team in 2013. It's enough to make your head swell and chest puff out, but within the clubhouse, that doesn't appear to be a problem.

"For us, it's fun to have so many people expecting such big things for us," reliever Drew Storen said. "But you have to block it all out. You can't get caught up in that, whether it's good or bad."

Though the Nationals as a franchise have never entered a season with any kind of legitimate expectation, several players on the Opening Day roster have experienced this before: Jayson Werth in Philadelphia, Adam LaRoche in Atlanta, Dan Haren in Anaheim.

And, most importantly, the guy in the manager's office has plenty of experience in this realm. Rarely has Johnson ever guided a club that wasn't expected to win big, and rarely has he ever been fazed by it.

"He [exudes] calmness and confidence," new center fielder Denard Span said. "And it trickles down. So far since I've been here, he makes everybody feel relaxed and loose, and I think that's what you need to feel when there are a lot of high expectations."

To a man, the Nationals say Johnson's steady demeanor and ever-present confidence in his players helped everyone stay even-keeled during their first pennant race one year ago, never getting too high during a winning streak, never getting too low during a losing streak.

"I think it's great having a manager that has 100 percent faith in all of his players," said Stephen Strasburg, who makes his second career Opening Day start tomorrow. "If you go out there and have a bad game, he thinks you're the greatest thing since sliced bread. It doesn't really matter what you do that day, you know you're going to be in the lineup the next day. You know you are going to have an opportunity to succeed."

It takes more than just a good manager to incite talk of 100-win seasons, and certainly the Nationals' roster is loaded with as much talent as any club in baseball. Especially young talent.

Strasburg, even entering his fourth professional season, is only 24. Rotation mates Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler all will be 27 through the bulk of this season. Ian Desmond (26), Danny Espinosa (25) and Wilson Ramos (25) are just entering their primes. Ryan Zimmerman, the face of the franchise for eight years now, still is only 28.

And, of course, there's Bryce Harper, coming off an historic Rookie of the Year campaign and determined to truly break out in his first full season in the big leagues at 20.

Take that core of young talent, add some key offseason additions like Span, Haren and Rafael Soriano, and it's not unfair to ask if these Nationals will be even better than the 98-win team that posted baseball's best record in 2012.

"I don't know if better is the word," LaRoche said. "But I think we're more well-rounded now."

Indeed, there are no obvious roster flaws entering Opening Day. Sure, they don't have a true, left-handed specialist in the bullpen, and there's no reliable No. 6 starter waiting in the wings in case somebody gets hurt. But those are nitpick flaws, and find another team in the sport that wouldn't kill to be worried about such trivial matters on April 1.

And don't forget the importance of the experience factor, with the vast majority of this team having now been through a pennant race and October baseball for the first time.

"All the experience from last season -- from Day One to the last pitch -- it all helps us for this year," Storen said. "Those were big games. It's a completely different game when you're playing for a first-place team. There's no off-nights. Everybody's getting after you every night. You're always facing everybody's best stuff."

Yes, the target is squarely on the Nationals' chest this season. Nobody's overlooking them. Nobody expects them to come back to earth after what in many ways was a dream season in 2012.

Nope. These guys are baseball's overwhelming favorites in 2013. Imagine that: the Washington Nationals are everyone's pick to win the World Series.

Feel free to get caught up in that idea. Just rest assured, the guys in uniform aren't.

"It's just one of those things you kind of stare up at, it's like watching 'Family Guy' or something," reliever Tyler Clippard said. "It's not that big of a deal for me. It's just kind of entertainment in a way."