Washington Nationals opening day: Embracing a season of great 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)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist March 31, 2013

Fear of success is a common human trait. Except among the successful.

For those who follow the Washington Nationals as opening day arrives on Monday at 1 p.m. against the Miami Marlins, internalize this: The Nats love being one of the World Series favorites. They welcome the demands of success.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

The Nats know better than anybody that they may fail to meet their own high hopes this year. The Braves, bad hops, the Giants, slumps, the Dodgers, sore arms, the Reds and even Pete Kozma may worry them. But they are not fretting much about the Burden of Big Expectations. Those, they crave.

You can tell the difference between fans and athletes by the way they greet good news. The fan often throws up his hands to shield his face. Everything is an ill omen or, at the least, not exactly what it seems. Any show of confidence is seen as tempting fate. The athlete, on the other hand, takes reality at face value; he or she deals with it and adapts as necessary. But elite athletes do not see good developments as somehow perversely bad.

The Nationals are not annoyed that their manager, Davey Johnson, hung a “World Series or bust” tag on them. They want their manager to believe in them and go out on the limb of great ambition right beside them. Johnson played on teams that won 109, 108 and 101 games and he managed teams that won 108, 100 and 98 three times. He knows. He believes. So, say it. They embrace it.

Johnson welcomes the pundits’ picks of the Nats to win the World Series. “It’s a validation that we are going in the right direction,” he says. “I tell them, ‘Do not worry about the team. Take care of No. 1. Let me take care of the whole.’

“Baseball is 90 percent mental,” Johnson says. That sounds like a nonsensical Yogi Berra-ism, but Johnson believes it. Who accomplishes anything truly difficult unless they can imagine themselves doing it first?

That’s one reason why some teams reach critical mass to win titles and others never do — they amass a sufficient number of players who, when they evaluate themselves as a group, think: We’ll need some breaks, but we can do this. That’s why Stephen Strasburg is happy, not jealous, to see Bryce Harper across the locker room. Neither has any “fear of success.” Veterans feed off that youthful confidence and those head-shaking physical gifts.

Every pro athlete knows every bad thing that can happen to him or the team. They live it. They see it up close when Jayson Werth comes back to the dugout with a snapped wrist or Wilson Ramos blows up his knee, then cries tears of rage. Many remember the looks on Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann’s faces when they learned they’d miss a year each with elbow surgeries. They aren’t Polyannas.

But they also know that good news is not a trick. They welcome it. The Nats are delighted to come through spring training without a single major injury. They don’t superstitiously believe that dooms them to have seven players go on the disabled list this week. They’ll have injuries, but getting through seven weeks and 34 games in Florida intact is a concrete part of what can make an excellent year. It’s just one part. But it’s in the books.

“Everybody is feeling pretty frisky — some small injuries, but nothing major,” Johnson said. “As a manger, that’s what I’m most pleased with.”

When athletes become fans — of their college teams, for instance — they fall into the same traps as the rest of us. They watch March Madness in the clubhouse with worrywart expressions, fear and success all tangled up. But in the arena of their own gifts, the stars relish victory, dream openly of greatness and are exhilarated when those around them expect the same.

Granted, they may refuse to change the socks they wear to the ballpark during a winning streak. Be serious, you can’t cross the lucky socks.

Opening day is the moment when baseball switches, in a blink, from the grandiose imaginings of spring to the granular necessity of playing 162 games in 183 days against big-league teams, even the worst of which can beat you if you give them any help whatsoever.

“We have to go through that six-month grind now. Come in here every day and focus. Have fun. Try to win one game,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.

The Nats have two odd factors in their favor. First, Game 5 of last year’s National League Division Series. The Cardinals did everything but scream the word “choke” in their postgame quotes about how the young Nats had trouble breathing. Some Nats have taken it to heart, like Gio Gonzalez, who got tips from Greg Maddux on how to “focus on something small” so that he could cope with his nerves better in future. If any Nats are tempted to get too full of themselves this year, you can bet they’ll hear the whispers: “6-0 lead.”

Also, many Nats are so early in their career that they acknowledge they need to improve. Bryce Harper talked in Florida about how far he still had to go, even as he hit .478, the top mark in baseball during the exhibition season.

The Nats’ best example of continuing education may be their opening day pitcher, the analytical Strasburg, who wants to go from the ace who was shut down to the shut-down ace.

“This is my first opportunity to pitch a full season in the big leagues. I’m still learning how to do it,” Strasburg said after watching vet Dan Haren throw his bullpen session in hopes of picking up any tip. “I haven’t gone over seven innings in my career. In college, my game got better later [in the eighth and ninth innings]. I want to see how the game changes in the later innings.”

That’s how young the Nationals are, how many of the experiences they face this year will still be utterly new to them: Their top pitcher has never experienced the eighth inning as a professional. Some patience required.

Asked about those dastardly expectations, Strasburg answered as the gifted tend to do — like the musician who lives to perform or the top student who relishes the exam he expects to crush.

“Obviously there’s a target on our backs. We need to stick together. We’ll have our ups and downs. . . . We’re in uncharted waters right now,” Strasburg said. “I’m excited. It’s a good test for us.”

For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/
boswell
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