Feb 21, 2014, 6:00 AM EDT
VIERA, Fla. — Perhaps no club in the majors had loftier expectations entering 2013 than the Nationals. Certainly no club struggled with living up to those expectations like the Nats did.
One year later, the expectations remain sky-high. They just hope they’re better-equipped to handle them.
“I think expectations are good,” first-year manager Matt Williams said. “And especially with a team like this, they’re going to be there. You can’t get away from that. What we have to make sure is that we embrace that part of it, and realize that expectations are going to be there. And that’s a good thing, because they wouldn’t be if we didn’t have such a good bunch of guys and all this talent. Let’s embrace that and let’s understand that and let’s work as hard as we can to fulfill those.”
How, though, do the Nationals embrace the pressure without succumbing to it?
More than one player has noted this spring how last year’s squad couldn’t quite figure out how to strike that balance. But now that they’ve experienced it, they believe they’re better prepared to handle it.
“To win 98 games and break through and get over the hump, and then for us to sustain that for a year, I think we all learned it’s not as easy as everyone says it is,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “Every team, everyone has to go through that. Hopefully we went through it last year and we’ll use it to our advantage this year.”
With increased emphasis on spring training and a push to get 2014 off to a strong start, the Nationals are hoping to avoid the malaise that defined the first half of last season.
“I feel like it’s like that every year,” right fielder Jayson Werth said. “Like it’s: ‘Hey, we gotta get off to a good start!’ When I played on all those teams in Philly, that was always the mantra. That’s fine. My strategy has always been, it kind of goes like this [makes rising motion with his arm] and you’re playing your best ball in the middle of August and down the stretch. Not that you want to go down at the start, but just build up to where you’re on the upswing going into the postseason. And we were really, really close to timing that whole thing right last year.”
Indeed, the Nationals posted baseball’s best record from Aug. 9 through season’s end, going 31-16 to finish the year 86-76.
“We just didn’t play good enough in the first half to give ourselves a chance in the end,” Werth said. “But when you play like we did down the stretch and go into the postseason on fire like that, it’s good. A lot of teams end up winning the World Series like that. I didn’t mind that. I liked that about last year. People were awful down on last year. I’m kind of like, other than the first couple months, it wasn’t all that bad. We were really close to where we needed to be.”
How, though, do the Nationals avoid the prolonged stretch of mediocrity that defined the first half of 2013 and left them in a position where they had to play near-perfect baseball simply to get back into the fringes of contention?
“Our concentration is today and today only, and doing everything we can with that particular day – whether it’s a workout or whether it’s a game or it’s April or it’s September,” Williams said. “And that’s part of the mantra, I think. We’ll play for today, and at the end of it there’s nothing that we can do about it at that point anyway. We have to start preparing for the next one.”
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