WASHINGTON — Maybe there’s something appropriate about the timing of it all: What’s expected to be the first full season together for Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper is supposed to be the final season for their manager, Davey Johnson.
And maybe all of the heartache of those 100-loss years and last-place finishes could finally feel worth it in 2013 to the Washington Nationals, a popular pick to win the World Series.
No early shutdown for right-hander Strasburg. No waiting around in the minors for left fielder Harper. To hear the 70-year-old Johnson tell it, no shortage of high expectations, either: “World Series or bust” was the reigning NL Manager of the Year’s proclamation heading into what the team says is his last go-round in the dugout.
“Most of the guys on our team aren’t very ‘bulletin board material’ kind of guys. We’re pretty boring when we talk to the media. So I think Davey enjoys saying those kind of things,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the Nationals’ first draft pick after moving from Montreal in 2005. “For him to say that, obviously that shows how much confidence he has in us. I think that makes us play better for him, because we don’t want to make him look foolish by saying those things. It’s just all part of his master plan.”
Strasburg and Harper both were No. 1 overall picks in baseball’s amateur draft — rewards reaped by having the majors’ worst record in 2008 and 2009 — and both will be in Washington right from the start this time. As well as the finish, they and their teammates hope.
“Last year, we didn’t really know when Stras was going to be done or when Harp was going to come up,” Zimmerman said. “Anytime you have any kind of uncertainty around a team, it’s harder to deal with.”
Despite those questions and a slew of injuries to position players in 2012, the Nationals won 98 games, more than anyone else. But they blew a 6-0 lead in Game 5 of their division series against St. Louis and bowed out of the playoffs without Strasburg, who was told to rest his surgically repaired right elbow after 159 1-3 innings.
By the time he sat in September, Harper was really on a roll, one that would earn NL Rookie of the Year honors for a 19-year-old who began the season in Triple-A. Plenty of folks, including the kid himself, expect Harper to have better numbers than his .270 batting average, 22 homers, 59 RBIs and 18 steals of a year ago.
“I want perfection out of myself, and I think everybody wants perfection out of our team,” Harper said. “We’re going to come out here, play our game and hopefully get deeper than we did last year and hopefully have a shot at having a parade at the end.”
OK, so maybe Zimmerman was wrong about being boring.
One key to the team’s 18-victory improvement from 2011 to 2012: They were one of only three clubs — World Series champion San Francisco and NL Central winner Cincinnati were the others — with at least 27 starts each from five pitchers, according to STATS.
Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, a 21-game winner who finished third in NL Cy Young Award voting, get the attention, but the Nationals also feature hard thrower Jordan Zimmermann, 2007 first-round pick Ross Detwiler and Dan Haren, who won at least 12 games each of the past eight seasons and replaces Edwin Jackson.
“I’m just a little bit further along. Last year, I was just trying to find the feel for it. Now the feel is there,” said Strasburg, 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA and 197 strikeouts in 2012. “It’s just a matter of going out and repeating it.”
He’s 24. Harper is 20. They’re joined by twenty-somethings Zimmerman, Desmond and Espinosa in the infield, Zimmermann and Detwiler in the rotation and catcher Wilson Ramos. The only addition to the everyday lineup is Denard Span, who will play center and hit leadoff, the type of player Washington’s been seeking for years. The Nationals added to an already deep bullpen by signing free-agent closer Rafael Soriano.
“We have the talent and the chemistry to do something special,” Zimmerman said. “A lot of things have to happen right. We’ll just have to grind it out.”
One big difference for the Nationals this season is that they will not be catching anyone by surprise.
For the first time since arriving in the nation’s capital, they’re considered a favorite.
“The expectations have risen,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “The players see that. They understand where we’re at, what type of team we have.”
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