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Nats Staring Down Unfamiliar Opening Day Pressure

by David Elfin
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WASHINGTON (CBSDC) - As the Nats prepared for Opening Day 2012, there were plenty of questions for 69-year-old manager Davey Johnson.

Two members of their five-man rotation, Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson, had yet to throw a pitch for Washington. Two others, Stephen Strasburg and Ross Detwiler, had combined for just 40 major league starts. First baseman Adam LaRoche had batted a pathetic .172 in his Nats debut in 2011 while right fielder Jayson Werth hadn’t been much better in his first season in Washington at .232. Left fielder Michael Morse was sidelined with a back injury while closer Drew Storen was out with a tender elbow, putting 35-year-old Brad Lidge in that role.

Contrast all those potential headaches to this year’s almost stress-free environment in Viera, Fla. Other than the rocky spring by Dan Haren, who was signed to replace Jackson as the No. 5 starter, the Nats’ biggest obstacle might be overconfidence.

Johnson, who has announced that this will be his final major league season, has given his young team a “World Series or bust,” motif after Washington led the majors with a 98-64 record in 2012 only to be upset in the National League Division Series by St. Louis.

The 2012 Nats had never been part of a winning season together. Only Werth and Lidge (who would be cut in June) had World Series rings. Now, almost everyone is back from last year’s postseason roster save Morse, Jackson, backup catcher Jesus Flores, and relievers Sean Burnett, Tom Gorzelanny and Michael Gonzalez.

Replacing them are the speedier but not as potent outfielder Denard Span, the usually reliable Haren, former Nats starting catcher Wilson Ramos, lefty reliever Zach Duke, hard-throwing Henry Rodriguez, and Rafael Soriano, the latter Washington’s prime offseason acquisition.

If Span plays the way he did during his five seasons in Minnesota and Haren regains his form, where are the Nats’ holes?

Kurt Suzuki solidified a problem spot at catcher after being picked up from Oakland last August. LaRoche and Werth each delivered a renaissance season in 2012. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman should be a new man after long-needed shoulder surgery.  Shortstop Ian Desmond was an All-Star. Second baseman Danny Espinosa has responded to a challenge from Steve Lombardozzi with a sensational spring. Left field Bryce Harper is the reigning NL Rookie of the Year. Veterans Chad Tracy and Roger Bernadina and kids Tyler Moore, Ramos and Lombardozzi form a fine reserve corps.

Washington’s pitchers led the majors with a 3.33 ERA last season. Gonzalez (21-9, 2.89) was third in the NL Cy Young voting. Fellow All-Star Strasburg (15-6, 3.16) is finally ready for a full season nearly 31 months after having Tommy John surgery. Underrated Jordan Zimmermann (12-8, 2.94) is perhaps baseball’s best No. 3 starter. And no manager is able to throw a trio like Tyler Clippard (seventh inning), Storen (eighth) and Soriano at opposing hitters late in games.

Only five Nats are in their 30s with Werth, LaRoche and Soriano the oldest at 33. Harper’s only 20. Strasburg’s just 24. Espinosa and Storen are 25. Zimmermann’s 26. Gonzalez and Desmond are 27. Zimmerman has been in Washington since September 2005 but is still just 28.

Under the direction of the Lerner family, which bought the franchise in 2006, and third-year general manager Mike Rizzo, the Nats are climbing the ranks in attendance and payroll. Johnson’s .564 career winning percentage is first among living managers with at least a decade in the majors. Last season’s division title was Johnson’s fifth in his 12 full seasons following those he captured with the New York Mets in 1986 and 1988, Cincinnati in 1995 and Baltimore in 1997. He won the World Series in the first of those years and American League Manager of the Year in the last.

Division rivals Philadelphia, which won five straight NL East titles (as well as two pennants and a World Series) from 2007-11, will push Washington this summer as will Atlanta, which lost the wild-card game to St. Louis last October after just missing out on postseason in 2011 and getting there in 2010.

The Nats should also be motivated by their collapse in Game 5 against the Cardinals last October and by the World Series triumph of the San Francisco Giants, whom they beat in five of six matchups in 2012.

Barring major injuries or some serious overconfidence, expect the Nats to soar again this year, this time all the way to the World Series.

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin 

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