Washington Nationals’ early start offers hope for the upcoming season

Thomas Boswell
Columnist February 21, 2012

Three years ago, the Washington Nationals were the last team, and this was the last spring training camp, where anybody in baseball wanted to be. This was the club that arrived by clown car. Now, the Nats can’t stay away. They can’t report to work too early. This is where they want to be. A homegrown team that’s also grown close-knit and can’t wait to get started.

On Tuesday, at the first official workout for pitchers and catchers, the picture came into focus. The entire team, including all the veteran regulars such as Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth, were not only here but most had arrived several days ago. Unsolicited, the entire team came here to do extra boring sprints, batting practice and throwing.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

The Nats have “bought in.” Their transformation — their talent level, their expectations and their demands on themselves — may still surprise many in baseball. But the team itself has seen this coming for two years.

“Guys can’t wait to get started. We were almost ready for spring training the last day of last season,” 43-save closer Drew Storen said.

“Pretty amazing,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “Not sure I’ve ever seen it. Nobody asked ’em to do it. Is anybody not here?”

Well, utility man Mark DeRosa is somewhere nearby in Florida, but not yet sighted. If he shows Thursday, with the first required full-team workout not due until Friday, he’ll be the “latest” man on the squad by at least three days.

Most are like Wilson Ramos who, despite playing winter ball for many weeks even after his kidnapping and release in Venezuela, was so enthused that he came to Florida 20 days ago. “I’m excited to be here with my friends, getting ready to play baseball,” he said. “I’m really, really happy to be here.”

Ramos’s words, of course, have a powerful double meaning. But, in their simplicity, they also apply to the transformed mood of this entire camp. Even Johnson, 69, is so reenergized after his 11 years away from managing that he barely slept Monday night. In his team meeting, he asked how many players did not have iPads or iPhones.

“Three guys actually raised their hands — ‘You’re not up with the times.’ I told ’em, ‘Get one. If you have any problem, maybe I can help or if you’re not where you’re supposed to be, if you text me, I can protect you.’

“I know, oldest manager in the big leagues — dinosaur. Okay,” said Johnson, who took courses at Johns Hopkins in computer science as an Orioles player. “I’m pretty high tech and I could always keep up with the geeks.”

Three years ago next week, Mike Rizzo replaced Jim Bowden, who resigned under pressure, as general manger. Coincidence?

“I see enthusiasm throughout this camp. Guys were weeks early. They are in here working every day,” said Rizzo, who inherited a pitching staff that allowed a horrific 825 runs in 2008 and would go on to permit 874 — one of the worst pitching staffs in baseball in decades — in the 103-loss 2009 season.

If it seems that Rizzo and his beefed-up “scouting-first” front office have supervised a minor miracle, they almost certainly have. “I don’t think about it in those [multi-year] terms,” Rizzo said on Tuesday. “I’m just trying to get through today without anything going wrong.”

Last season, with a staff centered on young power pitchers — but with only five starts from Stephen Strasburg — the Nats allowed just 643 runs. As the Nats walked to practice fields on Tuesday, Tyler Clippard contemplated the changes he’s seen since Rizzo released four pathetic relievers on his first day as interim general manager and blew up the bullpen, including switching Clippard from a losing Class AAA starting pitcher into a dynamic all-star setup man.

“The difference in our pitching in just three years is incredible and we should only keep getting better,” said Clippard, aware the 2012 Nats may permit 300 fewer runs in than they did in ’09.

The latest crucial addition is lefty Gio Gonzalez, 31-21 the last two years in Oakland with a 3.17 ERA, but in Rizzo’s mind, on the verge of becoming even better. “If Gio can improve his walk ratio [per nine innings] from 4.1 to 3.7, he’ll become elite,” said Rizzo, murmuring “Cole Hamels.”

As the Nats hurlers lined up for their first group side-session, lifelong Washington fan Bill Somers, 61, summarized what is in countless minds.

“This is the first time in my life that I have felt realistic optimism about the future of a Washington baseball team,” said Somers, who saw games at Griffith Stadium, sold peanuts at RFK at Senators games and was an usher at the ’69 All-Star Game in D.C. “I don’t even mean making the playoffs this year, just the fun of following this team every day. We didn’t even have a pitching staff until Rizzo was able to put his hands on it.”

Perhaps it doesn’t take much to make downtrodden Nats fans cheerful. What’s remarkable is how far the Nats themselves are already ahead of their fan base in their anticipation. That’s where every good team resides — in a world of hopes, not fears. Washington was last there in, oh, 1933.

“A lot of us came up at about the same time and established ourselves in the big leagues,” Storen said. “Then, after that, you work on improving.

“But the next step is to go from improving ourselves to proving ourselves — in playoff races and the postseason. I really want to be in that scenario, in those big games. And I think we have a chance this year.”

If they do find themselves in a playoff race, one asset may help as much as talent. What gathered here quietly, spontaneously, and very early was not just a random group of players but something that may already be a team.

boswellt@washpost.com

For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.
com/boswell
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