“What’s stood out to me this spring, more baseball people have said to me, ‘The Nationals are going to be good this year,’ ” Commissioner Bud Selig said in a phone interview. “They’re going to be really competitive. In terms of people talking about a club that is clearly coming on, it’s the Nationals.”
Without the benefit of a winning season, the Nationals have acquired the appearance of an emergent team, a franchise that finally has found its way eight years after relocating from Montreal. They have the star power of Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, a talented young core, a rock-steady franchise player in Ryan Zimmerman and more gifted minor leaguers on the way.
Every spring, certain teams become the trendy choice. This spring, one of those teams is the Nationals.
“I know we’re that team,” outfielder Jayson Werth said. “What I don’t like is how we’re being perceived. I would rather come in under the radar. I’d rather be that unknown. So we’re getting a lot of exposure. I also feel like talk is cheap. I’d like to do a little surprise attack. I think we’re a little more known than we should be.”
Said Nationals reliever Brad Lidge, an 11-year veteran who signed this offseason: “We’re a trendy pick, or whatever the verbiage is, for a reason. It’s because we’re good. You’re looking at a team that I believe is going to make the playoffs.”
This winter, ESPN executives and broadcasters gathered in a conference room to determine the initial portion of their “Sunday Night Baseball” schedule, to choose the best matchups for the sport’s biggest regular season stage. They pored over metrics, compared research and argued like fans in a sports bar.
The Nationals had not appeared on the show since their first game of 2008, the night Nationals Park opened. This year, the Nationals will play on “Sunday Night Baseball” twice in the season’s first eight weeks, on May 6 against the Philadelphia Phillies and May 27 against the Atlanta Braves.
“You kind of say to yourself, all right, what will compel people to watch this game? What can you give people in a 10-second promo?” said Mike Ryan, ESPN’s vice president of programming. “That usually comes down to stars. The guys on the Nationals — Strasburg, Harper, the two Zimmerman[n]s — there’s no shortage of marketable players.”