This has to be the season the Nats take that next step

March 30

Matt Williams opens his first season as Nationals manager Monday, as Washington heads to New York to face the Mets. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

The Nationals have teased and tormented fans over the past two seasons. It’s now truly time for World Series or bust. The Nats were a big surprise in 2012 when they won 98 games and were one strike away from making the National League Championship Series. No matter, many fans thought, next year will be the breakthrough.

And then Washington went 86-76 and finished 10 games behind Atlanta in the NL East in 2013. It took a late-season surge to even look that good after languishing around .500 most of the year. Bryce Harper literally hit the wall, and a lineup riddled with slumps undermined a solid pitching staff.

Manager Davey Johnson retired, and former major leaguer Matt Williams, known for his intensity, was brought in.

And now the lineup is reset and the pitching staff is as intimidating as ever, with Stephen Strasburg taking the mound for the season opener Monday at the New York Mets. The lineup should produce runs. There’s renewed leadership in the dugout.

So is this the year? The one where the World Series comes to the nation’s capital for the first time since 1933? Maybe.

That’s not a lukewarm answer. The Nats have everything to win a championship. And fans are no longer simply content to see baseball is back in D.C.; it’s been nine seasons since the return. Washingtonians expect to see the postseason.

But what’s considered a good season? Certainly nothing less than the playoffs, but really at least an NLCS appearance is expected and a World Series title desired.

The Nats can look just a few blocks away at the Capitals for an example of squandered young talent. The Caps won their third straight Southeast Division title in 2009-10 with a team-record 121 points. They seemed ready to punch through with a young team.

And then the Caps lost in the first round of the playoffs. The next two years ended in second-round defeats. This season, just four years after they seemed destined to be a dynasty, the Caps are just trying to reach the postseason.

The same can happen with the Nats, so winning now is imperative. Lineups don’t stay together. Players get older, arms get hurt and suddenly everyone’s wondering what happened.

This season may hinge on Adam LaRoche. The slugger was miserable most of last year. After batting .271 with 33 homers and 100 RBIs in 2012, LaRoche was a paltry .237 with 20 homers and 62 RBIs last season. That slump spread through the locker room like a flu virus. If he has another miserable spring, the Nats need to permanently move Ryan Zimmerman to first.

This has to be the Nats’ season to take that next step. If not now, then when?

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Tracy Krulik | March 30