Washington Nationals 2013: The curse of high expectations

The Washington Post’s LaVar Arrington, Mike Wise, Liz Clarke, and Jonathan Forsythe predict whether the Nationals will exceed their MLB-best 98 wins in 2013. (Post Sports Live)

It’s not the alleged Sports Illustrated cover curse that should concern the Nationals, picked by the magazine this week to win the World Series. It’s the curse of high expectations.

Davey Johnson said last spring that if the Nats didn’t make the playoffs, the team should fire him, which at the time sounded more like a Gipper-like bucking up of the troops than prognostication. Yahoo Sports went out on what seemed like a shaky limb at the time, picking the Nats to get to the Series before losing to Tampa Bay.

But with a few exceptions, expectations for the Nats last season were temperate. Certainly they’d win more games than the 80 they managed in 2011. They might sneak into the postseason with a wild-card spot. They might challenge for the division, but the Phillies and their elite rotation had won 102 games in 2011. Win more games than any team in the majors? Win their first division title? Bring up Bryce Harper early, keep him up and watch him become the NL Rookie of the Year? Yeah, right.

That’s what made the Nats the fun team in town last summer and fall. That’s what drew new fans to Nats Park to join the few, the proud who were at RFK from the beginning. They seemed loosey-goosey, but not in a lovable loser way. A lovable winner is hard to pull off and harder to make last.

It’s always more fun to come out of nowhere. You’re playing with house money. You’re a 15 seed taking on a 2 seed. You’ve got nothing to lose. As Jayson Werth told Adam Kilgore, not this week, but a year ago: “I would rather come in under the radar. I’d rather be that unknown. So we’re getting a lot of exposure.”

If he thought the 2012 Nats got a lot of exposure, wait till this season. They may wind up feeling like the entire dreadful Kardashian family rolled into one by the time October rolls around. And they have only themselves to blame. Once you’ve raised that bar, even by a few inches, no one wants to see you ratchet it down again.

The Nats will have more successful seasons than 2012, when they were bounced from the playoffs in the first round. They may even have a more successful season as early as 2013. But they — and their a-ha singing fans — may never have that much fun again. (You say A-ha, a-ha.com says a-ha. Let’s call the whole thing off.) When it’s all new, it’s far less nerve-wracking.

But that is part and parcel of winning, not the offshoot of Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine handing the Nats the World Series in March. So what? SI hasn’t picked a winner since 1999, and then it was the Yankees. In 1999, that was the prognosticator’s version of fish in a barrel. In the 13 years since, only one of the predicted winners made it to the Series – the ’01 Yankees. Six of the other 12 didn’t even make the playoffs.

And that’s not meant to be a knock on Sports Illustrated. Predictions are a waste of time, but they’re also damned hard, especially in baseball, where 162 games loom between opening day and the start of the postseason. A whole lot can go wrong for some teams and a whole lot can go right for others. Nostradamus would never have won the NCAA tournament pool for French apothecaries.

If you want to obsess about the cover curse and Stephen Strasburg, go ahead. The fact is that in 2004, SI said the Cubs would win the Series. The cover art was Kerry Wood, and the headline was “Hell Freezes Over.” Wood was 8-9 that season and missed two months with a strained triceps, just another trip to the disabled list for the luckless flamethrower. However, Wood never really recovered from Tommy John surgery in 1999; Strasburg has proved that he has.

If that’s cold comfort, also remember that SI’s covers for such things as baseball and NCAA tournament issues are regionalized now. Five other players were also featured this season: Detroit’s Justin Verlander, the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, Yankee CC Sabathia, Tampa’s David Price and Kansas City’s James Shields. So that must dilute the curse, right? What’s the result of that chemistry – pennant, but no World Series title? Strasburg is hurt, but it’s only his feelings? If you believe in curses, you believe in curse cures. Perform your usual ritual and carry on.

If the Nats don’t live up to the promise of what they accomplished in 2012, the culprit will be the pressure of what they accomplished in 2012. Luckily most of them are too young to realize that, and Johnson is old enough to know how to treat the symptoms.

Or you can go into the season with a bad Natitude. “If you expect nothing from anybody, you’re never disappointed,” wrote the late Sylvia Plath. Then again, I’m not sure fans of any sport should use Plath as their role model.

For previous columns by Tracee Hamilton, visit washingtonpost.com/hamilton.

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