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Nationals Look on the Bright Side

There Are Plenty of Keys, and Team Hopes They All Turn in the Right Direction

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 6, 2009; Page D04

MIAMI, April 5 -- For at least a day, the only challenge to optimism was imagination. The Washington Nationals, walking into the visitors clubhouse at Dolphin Stadium on Sunday, had the best vantage point in baseball. They had an 0-0 record. They were there for a dusk workout; Opening Day was still 24 hours away. A new gray uniform -- script "Washington" across the chest -- hung in every locker.

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"Love 'em," Willie Harris said, buttoning the shirt.

When Manager Manny Acta met with his players before batting practice, he told them what he believed. This group represented his most talented team yet, he said. He reiterated the expectations, but most of all, he underscored this message: "You have to believe."

Optimism is baseball's annual gift, of course; only the rest of the season stands in its way. In the coming weeks and months, as the Nationals learn about what kind of team they have, several critical factors will determine whether the optimism lingers or withers.

-- The Starting Pitching: At the beginning of spring training, Acta called the bullpen the most worrisome segment of his club. But the team acquired two veteran relievers, shifting attention to a staff whose ace has 11 career wins.

"How the starting pitching plays out," bench coach Jim Riggleman said, "will be huge."

The last two starters, Shairon Martis and Jordan Zimmermann, are both 22-year-old rookies. The task of stabilizing the rotation, then, falls not only to John Lannan, but also offseason acquisitions Scott Olsen and Daniel Cabrera. Olsen had a mediocre spring, and Cabrera wasn't nearly so lucky -- worrisome, given that he is coming off a 2008 season with Baltimore with a career-worst strikeouts-per-nine-innings total. When Washington signed Cabrera in December, it hoped that a move away from the American League East could help revive the 6-foot-9 right-hander's career. But a change in geography doesn't solve Cabrera's mechanical issues, and he remains a work-in-progress. At 27, he is the veteran of the staff.

"It all depends on how these guys are going to hold up for us," Acta said. "They're not legit No. 1s and No. 2s as most of the first division clubs have."

-- The Defense: When Ryan Zimmerman talked on Sunday about the keys for the season, he shortened the list to one: "defense."

In 2008, the Nationals committed more errors than any other club in the National League. Nowhere did their injuries take a greater toll. Paul Lo Duca, at times, played first base. Ronnie Belliard played third. Acta called the defense "a debacle."

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