They didn’t make the playoffs. They didn’t even finish at .500 because of Tuesday’s loss at Florida. But there’s no arguing that the 2011 season wasn’t a success for the Washington Nationals.

The Nats didn’t just finish within an eyelash of .500 at 80-81 (a September game against the Los Angeles Dodgers was rained out and not rescheduled), they improved 11-1/2 games over last season.

The Nats finished in third place in the National League East for the first time since arriving from Montreal in 2005 and wound up with a better record than 15 teams including 2010 division winners Cincinnati and Minnesota.

Perhaps the most impressive part of Washington’s season was its conclusion, not just restored phenom Stephen Strasburg’s six innings of 10-strikeout, shutout ball in Wednesday’s victory over the Marlins, but its 17-10 record in September. For those of you scoring at home, as announcers love to say, that projects to 102-60 for a season matching Philadelphia’s baseball-best mark.

The Nats got more good, although expected, news on Wednesday when manager Davey Johnson, who has guided the New York Mets to a World Series title and Baltimore and the Reds to the playoffs, said he wants to return in 2012.  An agreement with ownership and general manager Mike Rizzo should be a mere formality since they had to convince Johnson to come out of retirement to take the job after Jim Riggleman’s stunning June resignation.

“When I start something I would like to finish it,” said the 68-year-old former All-Star second baseman who was 40-43 this year. “We haven’t finished anything. I like the direction the club has been taking. Coming into 2012, there will be very few question marks. When that happens you have a chance to contend.”

The Nats contending? Yes, indeed. Cynics will hearken back to 2005 when the guys with the curly W’s on their caps went 81-81 under Frank Robinson in their D.C. debut and note that the next season began a slide that didn’t really reverse until this year.

However, that 2005 team went 11-17 down the stretch, almost the opposite of this year’s model.

And look at the youth of the current Nats. Mainstay third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the only link to that 2005 team, turned all of 27 yesterday. First baseman/outfielder Michael Morse, a revelation in his first true shot at being a regular this season, will be 30 in 2012. Rising catcher Wilson Ramos is 24. The double-play combination of Ian Desmond (26) and Danny Espinosa (24) is in the same ballpark as are Strasburg (23), fellow Tommy John surgery success Jordan Zimmermann (25), closer Drew Storen (24), All-Star set-up man Tyler Clippard (26). Brad Peacock (23) and Tom Milone (24), who shone as September starters alongside John Lannan (27) and Ross Detwiler (25), give Johnson some enviable options for his 2012 rotation while Ryan Mattheus (27) and Henry Rodriguez (24) showed that they’re ready to support Storen and Clippard in the pen.

Only 2011 free agent signees Adam LaRoche and Jayson Werth are over 30. The former spent most of his miserable year on the disabled list and could well be replaced by Morse at first in 2012. However, the latter finally awakened in September after a dreadful five months, hitting .274 and encouraging the Nats that if scorching 18-year-old prospect Bryce Harper is ready for the majors next season that they’ll only need to worry about filling one outfield spot.

Washington isn’t yet ready to catch Philadelphia, which might well win another World Series in October, but Atlanta’s late collapse from wild card lock to out of the playoffs makes the Braves look vulnerable in 2012. The 2011 Nats more than made up the eight games they finished behind the Mets in 2010. With a true centerfielder added to the lineup via free agency, why can’t they do the same next year with the 8-1/2 games between them and the Braves?

If that happens, Washington will have a true contender for the first time since World War II was ending in 1945. And baseball season won’t be just what fills the time between the Caps’ annual spring playoff demise and when the Redskins get going in September.

David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan during the 2010 Redskins season, he returned to the station as its blogger in March.


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