For Washington Nationals and rest of MLB, hope springs on opening day 2014

For 183 days baseball fans ask questions. Then for 182 days starting Monday, they get their answers. If you have the vague impression that half of your life is richer than the other half but you don’t know quite why, you’re probably a baseball fan.

“Opening day is the best day of the year,” Washington Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth said. Chilly with the threat of rain in Queens against the miserable Mets is the best it ever gets? “It’s the best day on earth,” Werth amended, giving the galaxy a day off.

“If you’re not nervous, you’re not human,” right-hander Tanner Roark said of just thinking about his own start in the home opener at Nationals Park on Friday.

The Nats seemed loaded double with tantalizing questions. When or will Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper hit their true baseball maturity and become great players rather than very good young ones? Are the Nats as a team about to make a similar jump? Of 43 ESPN baseball writers, 19 picked the Nats to be in the World Series and 12 to win it. Sports Illustrated has picked them to win it all again despite an 86-76 record last year that missed the playoffs.

What’s with this Anoint-a-Nat phenomenon? Last year I did not pick them to go to the World Series, much less win it. Until the Cardinals and Dodgers look worse or the Nats look better, I wouldn’t favor them to win the National League pennant now, either. Could they? Absolutely. Pick ’em? No.

The Nationals' pitcher Stephen Strasburg discussed the state of his arm, lessons learned from last season and what's to come for the Washington team during a break from spring training in Viera, Florida. (Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

“It has to do with how good we look on paper,” Strasburg said. “But it’s not necessarily who looks best on paper or who won the most games [in the regular season, as the Nats did in 2012]. We know how hard it is.”

Then, still without mentioning “World,” let alone “Series,” Strasburg says, “I don’t subscribe to Sports Illustrated or ESPN the Magazine. . . . [But] I think the sky is the limit with this club.”

That sky-high sense of hope exists to a greater degree in baseball than in pro football or basketball because, for decades, baseball has actually been the sport with the best parity, the greatest diversity of World Series attendees and winners. The Red Sox went from last place (69-93) in 2012 straight to 97-65 last season and won the World Series. How many teams won fewer than 71 games last year? Only five. So 25 teams were better in ’13 than the BoSox were in ’12 before their Duck Boat Parade run. Even sober, there’s a case for 20 teams to make the playoffs. Then, anybody wins.

Maybe that capsulizes why opening day, in addition to announcing spring, means a lighter heart to many of us. “Hope is the thing with feathers.” Yeah, or the thing with 216 stitches.

Perhaps what baseball does best is anticipation — between pitches, with just enough time to wonder what’s coming next and why; between innings, wondering who’s due up, who’s warming up and what’s “on deck”; and from series to series as teams collect themselves for their next mini-confrontation with another team. Because 162 games are such an exhaustive test, we anticipate major plot switches, the kind that happen to every team every year — a 13-2 streak or 1-10 collapse. No ride is smooth; that’s all the better. What’s truth, what’s tease?

But maybe the foreplay baseball does best is anticipation between seasons. Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley said the year was divided in halves between “baseball and the void.” But it’s a rich void. We’re forced to digest the past season, invent profound lessons learned to hug throughout the offseason (some of them actually true) and decide what’s needed (usually a lot) and what’s actually possible (what do you know, quite a bit!). By opening day, you’re ready to scream. Scream what? Well, “Play ball!” and about damn time, if it’ll just stop snowing.

For most of baseball recorded time, these titillated feelings here suffocated in their cribs in Washington. Except for a handful of seasons, Washington has spent more than 90 percent of the 113 years since MLB here wondering what all the fuss was about — this anticipation foolishness. Bah, last place or next to last, what’s the rush? Now we really get it.

Is this the year Wilson Ramos becomes a star slugging catcher? Will Ryan Zimmerman, who committed no errors in spring training, regain his throwing accuracy at third base? Will Anthony Rendon, Roark and Taylor Jordan, all promising last season, establish themselves as the next wave of Washington talent? Will Doug Fister get off the DL by May 1 and prove he really was the top steal of the offseason? Will Matt Williams be the Red Bull of rookie managers?

What are my anticipations for ’14? I’ve got four. (Be kind: .250 is league average.)

●Strasburg begins his peak years because he’s grown up. He recognizes his one limiting factor — until now. His perfectionist goals got him where he is. But to reach those goals you have to develop a realist’s resilience. He will. Less pique, a few sliders: tough combination.

●Harper still has to wait for great. A little too much personality and not quite enough production is an anchor in sports. Pretty soon, after he cuts back on the commercials, stops checking Mike Trout’s line in the box scores, limits the people in his ear and decides that fundamental mistakes insult the game he adores, it’ll come together.

●Williams won’t hold the team back. Managing is an experience gig, and he’s a sponge. But he’s a rookie, too. As they say in poker, you’ve got to pay to learn. And he’s already paying. Two weeks ago, he sent established starter Ross Detwiler to the pen and trusted that Fister (elbow) would be ready by opening week. Then he only would have to choose one kid pitcher to fill out his rotation, Roark or Jordan, not both of them. What harm could one do?

Seemed like a good idea at the time — to me, too. But now Fister (lat strain) is gone for three weeks and more likely 30 days. This rotation risk was Williams’s choice, not a blunder. But it was also an introduction — of Williams to the manager’s enemy, Mr. Murphy, he of Murphy’s Law. Tanner and Taylor may get a combined 10 starts in just the season’s first month.

●And what a month it is. After four days off out of five — not good for hitters’ timing — the Nats face a rugged stretch of 25 games in 26 days, starting this Wednesday. If the Nats play well, they could be five games ahead by May 1. If not, five games out of the division lead — in a hurry — is just as possible.

We waited half a year. Now the year’s better half begins. Don’t blink. You could miss a lot.

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist.
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