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This Could Be Year That Nats Don’t Go Bust

by David Elfin
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credit: Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images

credit: Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images

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The Nationals almost made it through spring training without any negative developments. However, new fourth starter Doug Fister’s likely absence for a couple of weeks with a lat strain suffered yesterday doesn’t change the big picture as Washington makes its final preparations for Monday’s season opener against the Mets in New York

The lack of drama was good news for a still relatively young team – only nine of the 25 players on the likely Opening Day roster have turned 30 — that didn’t handle the “World Series or Bust” hype well last year.

The Sunshine State’s weather wasn’t always sunny for the Nats, but as they headed north after posting a 15-13 Grapefruit League mark, they couldn’t have asked for a better beginning – other than Fister’s injury — under rookie manager Matt Williams.

Washington stayed nearly totally healthy throughout spring training, making whether 2011-12 regular Danny Espinosa or 2013 starter Anthony Rendon plays second base Williams’ biggest decision. That is unless it’s the choice between Tanner Roark and the equally unproven Taylor Jordan to be the fifth starter once Fister returns to the rotation behind veterans Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez.

The Nats’ top-shelf top four starters appear even more formidable now that Atlanta, which unseated Washington as the National League East champion last year, lost two of its starters, Kris Medlen and Bryan Beachy, to season-ending arm injuries. The Braves also let former All-Star catcher Brian McCann and one-time ace Tim Hudson depart as free agents in financially-prompted moves.

And with the other teams in the division, Philadelphia, Miami and the Mets, not expected to contend, the Nats should return to the top of the NL East heap if their players perform as expected.

Career years aren’t necessary for Washington to win. Not with that rotation, a bullpen that includes former All-Stars Rafael Soriano and Tyler Clippard as well as a third one-time closer, Drew Storen, and a lineup that includes 2012 NL Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper in left field, a potent left side of the infield in third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond and the still-nasty Jayson Werth in right. All hit at least 20 home runs last season as did first baseman Adam LaRoche while rising catcher Wilson Ramos smacked 16 in just 287 at-bats.

Not that Grapefruit League stats mean much – the late, lamented Washington Senators finished first in Florida in 1970 only to come in last in the American League East – but Ramos, Zimmerman and center fielder Denard Span all hit at least .325 with Rendon and LaRoche over .280 while Soriano, Zimmermann, Clippard, Fister, Strasburg and new left handed reliever Jerry Blevins all compiled earned run averages below 1.85. And Williams’ renewed focus on defense showed as the players who’ll still be wearing curly W’s on their caps next week combined for just eight errors.

Baseball is different that football in that the regulars really do work on their craft in the games that don’t count. And the majority of players who don’t make the team remain with the organization in the minors, an aspect that the NFL sorely lacks.

The Summer Game is also different in the definition of a top team during the regular season. It’s not that uncommon for an NFL team to finish 10-6 and miss the playoffs. It happened just last season to the Arizona Cardinals, who had the misfortune to compete in the same division as the NFC’s top two teams, the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers. A 10-6 pace over 162 major league games would give a team 101 victories, a total reached by just two teams during the past decade, the 2008 New York Yankees and the 2011 Phillies.

While teams have gone wire to wire – the 1984 Detroit Tigers won their first nine games en route to 104 victories and the World Series title – baseball is more about steady consistency, month-in and month-out, than it is about hot streaks as can be the case in the NBA and NHL, which play half as many games.

Eight of the Nats’ first 14 games are against the Mets and the Marlins with the other six against the Braves. Yes, they’re all division contests. And yes, Washington should theoretically start with a 9-5 record by winning six of eight against the New York and Miami and splitting with Atlanta. But don’t panic if the Nats get off to a slow start under their new manager. It might take time to adjust in regular season play to Williams’ more aggressive ways after two-plus seasons under the more laid-back Davey Johnson.

Don’t forget that Washington started 7-2 last season but then went 53-62 over the next five-plus months, making its 26-12 finishing kick pointless since Atlanta had already just about wrapped up the division.

Losing a game or – perish the thought – two right off the bat can doom a college football season. Losing a series or two right off the bat is no big deal for a major league baseball team. If the Nats avoid key injuries and play to their potential and if Williams is as ready to be a manager as general manager Mike Rizzo believes, they should be back in the playoffs for the second time in three years come October with a solid shot of giving Washington its first World Series winner in 90 years. They’re just too talented not to reach postseason. And in baseball, over 162 games, talent is almost always decisive.

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.

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