From about the fifth inning on during Game 5 of last year’s National League Division Series, I started pacing.
You might even say I was stalking, back and forth in front of my television, pausing at every pitch, as the Cardinals began their comeback from a 6-0 deficit, as Kurt Suzuki provided what we all thought was a clinching insurance RBI in the eighth inning, and as St. Louis came up off the canvas to win the ballgame and send the Nationals home in the cruelest of fashions. Immediately after Ryan Zimmerman‘s game-ending pop-up landed in Daniel Descalso‘s glove, I snapped the television off and looked at the path I had worn in the carpet, visible in the same way there used to be a patch of worn grass at Fenway Park marking the route Wade Boggs always took from the field to the dugout.
Although that carpet has been vacuumed numerous times since that night, in my head I saw the path all winter — a reminder of the way 2012 ended, our first taste of playoff baseball, the most magical of moments juxtaposed with the bitter taste of watching another team celebrate your demise, on your field.
And yet today, I looked for that path and failed to see it. This could only mean one thing — that 2012 is over, and a new baseball season is ready to move to the forefront of our minds, pushing last season and all of its wonderful memories to a readily accessible box within our minds, something to be looked back upon with love but no longer the present-day focus. As Nationals players straggle in to Space Coast Stadium this week to kick off Spring Training 2013, with new teammates, new expectations and even new batting practice caps, it’s time to look at the potential paths this season could take.
It’s clear the biggest difference between 2013 and seasons past for the Nationals is the level of expectations on the club, from everyone — media and fans, both local and national, and the organization itself. Manager Davey Johnson has announced that 2013 will be his last season at the helm of the Nationals and has made it clear he wants one more World Series ring to flash as he rides off into the sunset. While that might have been a pipe dream in any other season in Washington, this year it’s pretty much par for the course. The Nationals finished 2012 with the best record in baseball and have a large number of young players that should only get better. Washington is at least in the conversation as the most complete team in baseball now, and sometimes teams perform differently when the target is on them. How the Nationals react to the status of favorites should be interesting to watch.
One of the things that helped make 2012 so special for Washington was the relative health of the team over the course of the season. While the lineup did miss Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Morse, Wilson Ramos and Ian Desmond for chunks of time, by and large it was not a hard-hit Washington team when it came to injuries. The starting rotation had no issues whatsoever all season long, making every scheduled start and holding up throughout the playoffs. This is not a common occurrence, however, and any case of the injury roulette wheel coming up with Curly W more than normal could derail everyone’s season.
Speaking of injuries, the Nationals are hoping for some comeback seasons from players who were not 100 percent when last we saw them. Ramos will be eased back into the catcher’s role after tearing an ACL last May, while new acquisition Dan Haren likely needs to show he is fully recovered from nagging back issues that helped sink his velocity in 2012. Danny Espinosa, meanwhile, revealed at Fan Fest that he finished last season with a torn rotator cuff in his non-throwing shoulder and plans to play in 2013 without surgery. Espinosa has to hope his shoulder responds positively, or else the Anthony Rendon era in Washington could begin even sooner than expected. The Nationals number 1 prospect is a third baseman by trade, but is capable of playing anywhere in the infield and will see time at multiple positions during the spring to maximize the chances he could get to contribute this season.
While Rendon’s face isn’t guaranteed to be seen at Nationals Park this season, there are a couple of new players that will undoubtedly have an impact on the Nationals. The aforementioned Haren will effectively replace Edwin Jackson in the Washington rotation, and center field will be taken over by Denard Span, acquired from Minnesota over the winter. Span’s arrival will push Bryce Harper to a corner spot and pushed Morse, a fan favorite, all the way to Seattle, but answers the need for a leadoff hitter and traditional centerfielder the Nationals have been calling for for years.
Meanwhile, the bullpen also got an upgrade it didn’t know it needed, when General Manager Mike Rizzo inked closer Rafael Soriano to a contract. Formerly of the New York Yankees but made redundant with the return from injury of Mariano Rivera, Soriano instantly gave Washington two former closers in set-up roles in Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard , who along with Ryan Mattheus, Craig Stammen and Henry Rodriguez give the Nationals a lights-out, albeit right-leaning, bullpen.
Most of the baseball world, however, will be watching the Nationals two most visible players — Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. Strasburg will pitch without restrictions in 2013 after his innings limit lit up the sports world last season. Finally loosed of the reins, how high can Strasburg go? The same question could be asked of Harper, who spent the first month of 2012 in AAA Syracuse and still posted a season at age 19 unlike almost any player in baseball history, earning himself the NL Rookie of the Year Award. Harper is as driven as anyone in the game, and trying to project what kind of year he will have now that he has left his teenage years behind might be a futile exercise. By the time Harper is done, we could say we’ve never seen a player like him before.
Clearly, things are different now for the Washington Nationals. From also-ran to pennant favorite, the Nats are as good a bet as any to lift a World Series trophy this season. And that is a path that won’t fade away.