Washington Nationals may very well be better, but they’ll never be the same

The Washington Post’s Barry Svrluga, Chico Harlan, Adam Kilgore, James Wagner and columnist Thomas Boswell recall the journey of the Washington Nationals since the team moved from Montreal to providing Washington its first first-place finish in 79 years, and all the good and bad moments in between. (Jayne Orenstein/The Washington Post)

This winter, Washington Nationals fans are realizing that the first time is always the best. In baseball, of course. What did you think I meant?

That first division title and the players who won it will never be forgotten by Nats fans, despite the stunning Game 5 loss (which sadly for Nats fans will never be forgotten either).  Now the bar has been raised, and the oft-heard phrase of last fall — “It’s just great to be in the playoffs!” — will not be repeated.

Along with bar-raising comes change, and the Nats have seen plenty since losing to the Cards in the first round of the playoffs last October. Outfielder Denard Span and pitcher Dan Haren were added while the hot stove was still warming up; Adam LaRoche was re-signed while things were cooking; and reliever Rafael Soriano signed just when it looked like Mike Rizzo was ready to blow out the pilot light.

Of course, additions mean subtractions, and Nats fans are struggling with that reality. The 2012 roster was special, but it wasn’t perfect. So Edwin Jackson is gone, as is lefty reliever Sean Burnett and — perhaps the hardest for many fans to accept — Michael Morse.

Morse was one of those guys, the ones with whom you want to hang, the ones who make every good time better and every bad time tolerable. And then there was that song. Morse used “Take On Me” as his walk-up tune, Nats Park sang along, and pretty soon the A-ha hit from the dark ages of MTV (i.e., when it still aired music videos) became the Nats’ anthem.

Few fans wanted to lose Morse, and none from whom I’ve heard want to lose the song. Morse has said that he might just leave it as a parting gift to Washington (illustrating once again that he’s one of those guys). The team needs to make it the seventh-inning stretch song. Its impossible high notes just make it more special. And of course one can always lip-synch. Everybody’s doing it.

The team also unveiled a fifth racing president, William Howard Taft, a move that at least will send many to their history books — who am I kidding? Wikipedia! — to read up on the, uh, let’s see, 27th president of the United States. A Jeopardy answer recently involved the only man to be both president of the United States and chief justice of the Supreme Court. The right question was, “Who is Taft?” The unanswered questions remain: Why Taft? Why a fifth president? Why do we care?

That last one is easiest:  It’s the Nats’ own thing, part of the franchise’s identity, especially now that it’s had national playoff exposure. My dad was in the hospital during the Nats-Cards series, and when he saw the Rushmores, he asked me, “What the hell are those?” I think he was afraid his meds were too strong.

Span strengthens the outfield, and Haren-for-Jackson in the rotation seems like a no-brainer, on paper at least. The addition of Soriano is also a no-brainer, but is the one change that likely will have the biggest impact. The team must work in Soriano with Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen, or rather work in Clippard and Storen — the celebrated Clip & Save — with Soriano.

Clippard and Storen are roommates, close friends, and among the most popular players with the fans. Clippard has those wacky glasses; Storen is the go-to guy in the clubhouse and the players’ union rep. Storen saved 43 games in 2011 but needed surgery at the start of the 2012 season, and Clippard stepped into the closer’s role and kept the seat warm until Storen returned, and even after.

Then came the playoffs. Storen finished four games, with a win, a save — and a Game 5 loss that ended the dream season. And Soriano was brought aboard a few months later.

It’s no surprise Clip & Save were asked about Soriano this past weekend at NatsFest. It’s also no surprise that both said, in essence, the same thing: Baseball is a business; winning is more important than anything — or anyone — else.

The Post Sports Live crew debates about the 2013 season expectations for the Nationals. (The Washington Post)

It’s a truism most fans would echo — until their favorite player is traded, or benched, or sent down. It’s easy to develop attachments — everyone has his or her favorite Nat — and hard to accept change. Nats fans fret about team chemistry, and it’s a fair fret. But it’s all part of baseball, and now that Washington has become a baseball town, fans will have to get used to it.

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

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