Washington Nationals spring training features new ingredient: hope

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 27, 2010; D02

VIERA, FLA. -- Before Friday, Mike Rizzo had never addressed a team -- his team -- as general manager on the first full day of spring training. At 8:30 in the morning, the 2010 Washington Nationals formed a rectangle at their lockers around Rizzo, who was joined by team President Stan Kasten and Manager Jim Riggleman, to hear how and why this year is going to be different.

Rizzo's speech was the shortest -- "my two-minute rant," he said later. In those 120 succinct seconds, Rizzo delivered the basic imperatives of the Nationals' season. "We're putting 2009 behind us," he said. "Our expectation is to win."

As they came together for their first full-squad workout, the Nationals formally started spring training with acute optimism and raised standards. The reigning worst team in baseball announced its expectation to shed its well-earned reputation.

Players and officials described a fresh feeling this spring absent from prior years. "We can't ever have excuses here," Kasten said, a tacit acknowledgement that they existed in the past. Most of the clubhouse's new players carried veteran track records, offering hope to those returning that the team, for a change, had been built on merit and not possibility.

"It just feels different because of the personnel around me," said reliever Jason Bergmann, a participant of every Nationals spring training since the franchise moved to Washington. "More than last year, more than the year before that, I believe in this team. Everything seems stable. Every year, there's been an issue. This year it's strictly about baseball."

Rizzo sensed the players have expectations to match his own. This offseason, he acquired a Hall of Fame catcher (Iván Rodríguez), a pitcher who says he wants to finish 34-0 (Jason Marquis) and an experienced closer (Matt Capps) because he wanted players capable of changing a culture.

"I just wanted to make sure they heard it from me," Rizzo said. "The players should be focused to win, prepare to win, and expect to win. There really has been a different attitude. We're all tired of losing. We're all tired of talking about 100-loss seasons and No. 1 picks. You have to believe you can win before you start winning. I think that has taken place."

In the morning meeting, Riggleman spoke the longest and spoke last, and he added a theme -- "attention to detail."

The Nationals committed 143 errors last season and who-knows-how-many unrecorded brain cramps. Riggleman feels it is his job to prevent a similarly ghastly total this season.

When he spoke to players, Kasten emphasized "the heightened level of excitement" surrounding the club and acknowledged the increased expectations that come with it. February is an easy time for any baseball team to speak about expecting to win more games, but with the Nationals, this year the expectations seem to have merit.

"Last year was about the worst possible vibe you could have," Kasten said.

The Nationals had collected a roster ready to embark on a 103-loss season. Then-general manager Jim Bowden was under an investigation that left the franchise's international program in tatters. The pitching staff was comprised almost wholly of question marks.

The dominating story line this year is Stephen Strasburg, a once-a-generation, flame-throwing rookie.

"I think there's just more optimism than there ever has been with this organization before," starting pitcher Scott Olsen said. "The players see the work the front office has done and the talent they've brought in here. The optimism comes from that. This is arguably the best collection of talent that this organization has put together in spring training. Everybody from the top to the bottom sees that."

Perhaps no team will enjoy the reinvigoration spring allows more than the Nationals.

Davey Johnson, now a senior adviser to the club, stood off the third base line as coaches smacked fungos toward infielders, mitts popping amid chatter. Johnson is a lifetime baseball man who's seen more spring workouts than is worth counting. In 2000, he left the majors to work for the U.S. national team. Johnson thought about it for a second and said this was his first spring training in 10 years.

Nothing seemed new. "It's like driving a car," Johnson said. But he missed it.

"For baseball people, this is the best time of the year," Johnson said. "It's kind of that time where it's a new year, new opportunities. Fun time."

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