With Williams in charge, Nationals eye playoffs
WASHINGTON (AP) Thanks in part to No. 1 overall draft picks Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, the 2012 Washington Nationals were considered an up-and-coming team, perhaps a year or two away from contending.
So what did they do? Went out and led the majors with 98 wins.
Thanks to that quick rise, the 2013 Nationals became a popular pick to go to the World Series. So what did they do? Stumbled at the start and missed out on the playoffs.
Now here come the 2014 Nationals, featuring largely the same roster – including Strasburg on the mound, and Harper in left field, both feeling good after offseason surgery – and with rookie manager Matt Williams replacing Davey Johnson, he of the ”World Series or bust” proclamation.
One key difference: The club knows what it’s like to experience a truly disappointing, worse-than-they-were-supposed-to-be season for the first time since moving from Montreal in 2005.
”We got ahead of ourselves a little bit. My take on it was always: Last year in spring training, we had expectations on ourselves, really, for the first time, and we thought we were better, maybe, than we were,” reliever Tyler Clippard said. ”We came into the season expecting to win, which is a good thing. But at the same time, we might not have went out there and earned it, like we should have.”
Yes, the team that got Strasburg and Harper thanks to consecutive 100-loss seasons is trying to deal with lofty goals.
”To see the organization from basically, literally, the ground up, improve is something I kind of take pride in, because when I signed, people would be like, `Oh, you play for the Expos and the Nationals,’ and they’d be like, `Uh, OK, I don’t know them,”’ said shortstop Ian Desmond, drafted by Montreal in 2004. ”And now, it’s like there’s some pride behind playing for the Washington Nationals.”
Here are five things to know about the Nationals:
WILLIAMS TAKES OVER: A five-time All-Star and a four-time Gold Glove winner as a player, Williams is doing things his way in his first managing job. There’s the emphasis on defensive alignments. The aphorisms posted in the clubhouse (one example: ”He who holds the ball controls the game.”) Ryan Zimmerman explained his new skipper this way: ”He’s not going to be a drill sergeant, like a lot of people said he’s going to be. But he’s not going to be `country club’ or anything like that.”
STRASBURG’S BREAKOUT?: As terrific as Strasburg has been, he’s still short of 30 career wins. He has yet to dominate for an entire season, either because of injuries or his infamous 2012 shutdown. There was the right elbow ligament reconstruction before that, and the operation for bone chips in that elbow last October. So he only has 75 starts, going 29-19 with a 2.96 ERA.
HARPER’S HEALTHY: A significant Grapefruit League moment appeared to come in early March, when the lefty-hitting Harper homered off a left-handed pitcher. The 2012 NL Rookie of the Year has a career .229 average against lefties, .292 against righties, but explained that in 2013, his painful left knee – running into outfield walls didn’t help – prevented him from staying back against southpaws. After October surgery on that knee, he’s feeling fit. ”I worked my tail off to get to this point,” Harper said.
ADDING FISTER: It’s unclear how healthy Doug Fister will be when the season begins; the righty missed much of spring training because of right elbow inflammation. With him up to speed, Washington’s rotation has quite a front four: Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Fister. ”It is a very established group, and that’s one of the good things about coming here and this organization,” said Fister, acquired from Detroit in an offseason trade. ”These guys have had a lot of success already.”
ZIM’S ON FIRST: One planned experiment was having third baseman Zimmerman work on playing over at first, but lingering right shoulder issues delayed his debut across the diamond until March 16. Still, he said he’s ready to play there occasionally in the regular season. At the start of spring he said: ”If there’s an opportunity for me to play 10-15 games at first base, and it helps us win some of those games, then I’m down to help out any way I can.”
AP Sports Writer Joseph White and freelancer Carl Kotala in Viera, Fla., contributed to this report.
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