Mike Wise
Mike Wise
Columnist

Washington Nationals suddenly dealing with the weight of great expectations

I want to congratulate the Washington Nationals on winning the 2013 World Series. Given where this once god-awful franchise came from just a few years ago, this was a grand accomplishment that brought all the club’s chief assets to bear: the best starting rotation in the National League, lock-down bullpen, power from both sides of the plate, blinding speed on the base paths and, finally, savvy management and proactive ownership that made the right offseason deals to give the District its first championship parade in more than 21 years.

Wait, they haven’t won yet? There are still 162 games and three postseason series to play? You’re saying this isn’t a fait accompli?

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The Post Sports Live crew debates whether the defending NL East champion nationals are considered the team to beat in the National League heading into the 2013 season.

The Post Sports Live crew debates whether the defending NL East champion nationals are considered the team to beat in the National League heading into the 2013 season.

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Nationals Journal

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But, but . . . Davey Johnson said it’s so, proclaiming in December, “World Series or bust, that’s probably the slogan this year.”

Jayson Werth puffed his chest out last month, saying, “I think we got the best team in baseball.”

The coronation kicked off Tuesday, when pitchers and catchers reported for a spring training the Nationals probably don’t even need since they have so many Cy Young and MVP candidates. It’s not merely the players and their 70-year-old manager who predict championship bliss. Everybody and their mom said the Nationals are pretty much a lock.

Gatekeepers of the grand old game, opposing managers, players, Vegas, you name it. It’ll be shocking if Joe Buck has not yet reserved a Georgetown Four Seasons suite for all of October. I know Boswell is gussying up his own parade float in his driveway.

Most betting Web sites had the Nationals at 30 to 1 or worse to win it all a year ago. Many Las Vegas sports books had them at no better than 125 to 1 in 2011.

This year: 8 to 1, baby, better than anybody but the Blue Jays, according to some betting sites. Print those World Series tickets.

Or . . . be afraid. Be very afraid.

The last absolute, certain lock to win the World Series in April were the 2011 Boston Red Sox, who ended up not playing a postseason game, and the 2011 Phillies and all those great arms that went for naught. Go back to 2004, when the rich got richer in the offseason but Alex Rodriguez couldn’t even get the Yankees to the World Series with a 3-0 lead in the American League Championship Series.

The point being, of course, that the Nationals are paper champions. They have yet to win a single playoff series since the franchise moved to Washington.

And while Davey’s lineup card appears to be destined for greater things — while the signing of a lights-out closer like Rafael Soriano and a proven winner like Dan Haren make the Nationals that much better a pitching staff (not to mention the possibility of 200-plus innings from a no-innings-limit Stephen Strasburg), while Denard Span in center field is icing on the cake and re-signing Adam LaRoche appears to put them over the top — none of it guarantees anything except monstrous expectations.

Cruel, no? The Nationals’ patient legions that waited seven agonizing years for a real baseball team could come away from 2013 utterly crestfallen, without another season approaching 100 wins or at least a spot in the NLCS.

How the Nationals became Champions to Be in what feels like a millisecond is still a tremendous baseball tale, but it’s overshadowed by a startling reality:

There is no middle ground for this team. There were no baby steps. The hunter became the hunted.

That feel-good club from a year ago — the lifer in the dugout (Johnson), sending the best teenager in baseball since Ken Griffey Jr., up to bat (Bryce Harper), while the loyal company man (Ryan Zimmerman) finally gets his bonus — is now officially the “It” team, which everybody in baseball wants to knock off because they are worried the Nationals’ swelling heads will explode.

It’s not just Johnson’s usual bravado. Don’t forget Harper’s crotch-grab after striking out in Game 5 against St. Louis, a gesture the Cardinals could not stop talking about afterward.

Logic says the pitching is too good, that Werth and Harper will be on base often, Danny Espinosa, Ian Desmond and Zimmerman will hit for power and average, and Harper, Werth, Desmond and Span will take many extra bases.

But the little things give pause. Like, if Drew Storen doesn’t blow the save against the Cardinals in Game 5, does Mike Rizzo still go out and get Soriano or decide he already has a reliable closer? What does becoming the setup guy again do to Storen psychologically, given what it took for him to come back last season?

Is Gio Gonzalez’s relationship with Biogenesis nonexistent like he says, or might that cost the Cy Young candidate some games?

LaRoche had a big year in 2012 after two subpar seasons. Which guy in his 30s will show up this season? The same goes for Ross Detwiler and Desmond. Are their career years a harbinger of good things to come or an aberration?

The great hope is the Nationals can scale this very high bar they just incredibly re-raised on themselves. The worry for the organization is it’s now impossible to take a step back.

When you finish with baseball’s best record and knock the Phillies off the NL East perch, anything less than 98 wins and another division title won’t do. The Nationals can’t merely make the playoffs, they have to win the playoffs for any real gratification.

No playing with house money anymore. No baby steps, no middle ground.

Davey was right — for better or worse, World Series or bust.

For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

 
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