WASHINGTON — Back at home for their exhibition finale Friday, the Washington Nationals were greeted by a red, white and blue plaque outside the clubhouse pronouncing them “NL East Division Champions” of a year ago.
An identical sign stood next to the glass doors leading to the priciest seating section for spectators. A banner with the same message was hanging nearby as manager Davey Johnson spoke in the interview room. And a title-boasting board erected atop the outfield scoreboard will be unveiled in a ceremony at Monday’s regular-season opener.
“It’s a nice touch,” reliever Tyler Clippard said before Washington’s 4-2 loss to the New York Yankees. “Hopefully we can put a little bit better one up there next year.”
Proud as the Nationals are of their rather unexpected majors-best 98 wins and division title in 2012, they’re ready for more in 2013.
“It’s not bad to have expectations every once in a while,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said. “It means you’re a good team. We understand we still have to go out there and perform.”
Yes, the big, bad Yankees were in town to face the Nationals before a crowd of 38,161 on Friday, but go ahead and guess which club struggled to cobble together a roster as opening day approaches — and which pretty much knew its 25-man group at the start of the Grapefruit League.
Not to mention which team many folks figure is a World Series favorite.
That last label belongs to the Nationals, who until last season never had a winning record since moving from Montreal in 2005.
The 27-time World Series champion Yankees, meanwhile, are getting ready to begin what could be a difficult regular season with stars Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez on the disabled list.
“We have improved ourselves in the last three weeks with some of the additions, potentially, trying to close the gap on where we were as much as we possibly can,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said, leaning on crutches because he broke his right ankle skydiving.
A few minutes later, Cashman offered this assessment of the Nationals: “Obviously, they’ve got a great team.”
Clippard has seen both sides. He signed with the Yankees out of high school and made his major league debut for them, then was traded to the Nationals and spent time with Washington’s 100-loss teams in 2008 and 2009.
The Yankees, he noted, always get attention.
Now, for a change, the Nationals do.
“Everyone’s still talking about them, just not in much of a positive light. That’s just the nature of having that symbol on your hat over there. The Yankees, wherever they go, the spotlight’s on them,” Clippard said. “It’s nice to kind of have that over here a little bit, because … we’re really trying to build something here that’s going to last for a long time, a lot like the Yankees did.”
While Cashman spoke Friday about the challenges of putting this year’s team together, Washington’s Johnson was pleased to discuss a relatively injury-free spring.
“Nobody got hurt. Everybody’s feeling pretty frisky. We’ve got some minor injuries but nothing major,” Johnson said. “That’s the thing as far as a manager that I’m most pleased with coming out of spring.”
The Nationals added closer Rafael Soriano — a free agent who left the Yankees — along with center fielder Denard Span and fifth starter Dan Haren, but otherwise kept things pretty much the same as last season.
There was very little, if any, true competition during the team’s time in Viera, Fla.
Now Johnson wants to see more progress.
“It’s fun to know that you’re on the right track,” said the reigning NL Manager of the Year, who plans to retire after this season. “The challenge is still there. But we haven’t done the things that I know we’re capable of.”
NOTES: Yankees LHP Andy Pettitte ducked to avoid a twirling piece of broken bat during his six-inning, two-run stint, while 3B Kevin Youkilis hit his sixth homer of spring training and had a throwing error that led to an unearned run. “I felt like it was going to hit me right upside the head,” Pettitte said. “That’s why I bailed out.” … Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann allowed four runs in 3 1-3 innings. … After the game, Yankees 1B Lyle Overbay emerged from a meeting with Cashman and said he’ll be added to the 25-man roster Saturday. Manager Joe Girardi said INF Jayson Nix, OF Ben Francisco and RHP Shawn Kelley have made the team, while RHP David Aardsma has been designated for assignment. … Johnson announced that Wilson Ramos will start on opening day, less than 11 months after the catcher tore a right knee ligament and needed two operations. Suzuki starts Game 2. … Johnson indicated RHP Henry Rodriguez will make the roster and LHP J.C. Romero will not. … It was Washington’s first game at Nationals Park since the club blew a ninth-inning lead in the division series finale against St. Louis. The pitcher who let Game 5 get away, Drew Storen, was greeted with applause and cheers when he came on for the ninth Friday. “Of course you notice that,” Storen said. “It really means a lot to me.”
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