October 12, 2012. Nationals Park. Washington, D.C. The NL East Champion Washington Nationals are getting ready for Game 5 of the NLDS against the visiting St. Louis Cardinals. In Davey Johnson's first full year as the manager, the Nats finished the regular season 98-64.
The 2012 Nationals brought postseason baseball back to the nation's capital for the first time since 1933. The previous night, at approximately 6:55 PM, the entire baseball-loving population of the nation's capital celebrated as one as they watched Jayson Werth battle the Cards' Lance Lynn in an epic 13-pitch at bat that ended with a walk-off home run that sailed into the left field bullpen and sent the crowd of 44,392 into a frenzy. Before the fifth and final game of the season, the Nats' then-69-year-old skipper was asked by a reporter, toward the end of Johnson's pregame press conference, if there was still room for improvement.
"You guys won 98 game this year," the reporter asked, "How much better can you get?"
"Well, I think that -- I mean, we still -- a lot of guys haven't really hit their stride," Johnson responded. "There's still a bigger ceiling for a number of players on this ballclub. You know, [Jordan Zimmermann], [Stephen Strasburg], [Ross Detwiler], this is really their first full season in the big leagues. [Danny] Espinosa, he's still learning how to make adjustments up here. Certainly [Bryce] Harper, same thing.
"So, I think -- and we lost out no.1 catcher, [Wilson] Ramos, and he's going to be back healthy next year. So, I think we have got a way to go; we can still improve to be a lot stronger and more consistent ballclub."
As he had the previous winter after assessing the talent in the organization and on the major league roster, Johnson predicted big things for the Nationals in 2013. "World Series or Bust!" is how the Nats' skipper said it. "Being as this is my last year," Johnson would later say, when asked about his bold pronouncement, "it wasn't any great, earth-shaking news, 'World Series or Bust!' because I think that we've already won [the division], we've been in the postseason and with that experience and with the talent level that's here, our goal should be higher.
"There's no sense in me romancing anybody, and telling you that, 'Jeez, we'll be lucky if we win the division,' or be lucky if we go far in the playoffs. Maybe I'm just covering my [butt]. But my [butt] is going to be gone anyway. But, I think, I'm not telling these players anything that they don't believe themselves."
In a late March interview with ESPN980's Thom Loverro and Kevin Sheehan, a now-70-year-old Nationals' manager was still singing the same tune. "Last year I said, at the end of the  season, I said if we just play up to our potential, we've got enough talent here to win our division. And guys even exceeded that."
The Nationals battled through injuries to Michael Morse, Drew Storen and Jayson Werth, overcame a slow start by Ryan Zimmerman, etc., but players stepped in. Steve Lombardozzi and Tyler Moore filled in admirably wherever they were needed. A succession of catchers came in and did the job when one injury after another befell the Nats' backstops. Heading into the 2013 campaign, however, there were far fewer questions. The lineup was set, the rotation locked in, the bullpen changed, but in the Nationals' thinking, improved.
"We have a set lineup," Johnson said, "We're a balanced lineup. We're coming through the Spring better than we did last Spring. We're just a more complete ballclub. Guys know who they are. Some young guys got their feet wet, played very well. So, but there's still a higher ceiling for this ballclub. And I think everybody to a man in this camp expects a lot more out of this season."
57 games into the defense of their NL East crown, the Nationals are a game below .500 at 28-29, in second place in the division behind the Atlanta Braves who took two of three from Washington this weekend to improve to 7-3 against the Nats after ten games between the teams. The Nationals are currently 6.5 games behind the Braves and 7.0 games out in the Wild Card race behind the San Francisco Giants and Colorado Rockies (both 30-27 and 5.0 games out of first) and the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates (35-22 tied atop the WC standings).
Of the players Davey Johnson said last October had yet to reach their potential, only Jordan Zimmermann has clearly done so two months into the season. Detwiler and Strasburg have been up and down and both are currently injuried with oblique and lat strains, respectively. Wilson Ramos and Jayson Werth (who's expected back tomorrow) have missed significant time with hamstring injuries. Danny Espinosa, who played out the 2012 with an undiagnosed rotator cuff tear, opted against having surgery and has since suffered a fracture in his right wrist as well and is currently sporting a .158/.193/.272 line with nine doubles and three home runs in 44 games and 158 plate appearances.
The Nationals as a team have the NL's third-lowest AVG (.229), the lowest OBP (.287) and the second-lowest SLG (.326). Their .274 BABIP is 13th of 15 National League teams. Their 80 wRC+ is the NL's second-lowest above only the Miami Marlins (69 wRC+) and far behind the NL East's first-place Atlanta Braves (104 wRC+). The pitching has been strong again this season, but with Detwiler and Strasburg now out, it's less reliable than it was just a few weeks back. The bullpen has more question marks than anticipated though the Nationals have made a few additions that have impressed.
Davey Johnson, however, still thinks the talent is there. After last night's loss Johnson told reporters that the offense just needs to get going and the players who haven't played up to their potential (Espinosa, Tyler Moore, Steve Lombardozzi and Roger Bernadina among them) have to begin to at least approach what they provided last year.
"We're just -- about half of the ballclub is not doing the things they're capable of offensively," Johnson told reporters in Atlanta. "I was looking up there and a bunch of guys are hitting .150. There's too good a quality players here to be doing that and I'm sure we'll pick it up, it's just a tough time. A couple guys hurt, but it always gives an opportunity for other guys that have talent. We're just not getting it done."
"It's just the offense is just sputtering a little bit," the Nats' skipper continued. "Be good to get Jayson Werth back and some other guys are certainly capable, we've just got to start doing it, that's all. It's that simple." Ian Desmond agreed with his manager, that the team just hasn't put it all together yet. "We're going to hit our stride eventually," Desmond told reporters including MASN's Dan Kolko. "I know the fans and everyone else are getting tired of hearing that. But it's bound to happen. We're a good ballclub."
"There's still plenty of time," Davey Johnson assured reporters after Sunday's loss in Atlanta. "We can right the ship and get things going in the right direction. We've still got plenty of time." It's never too soon to start, however, as Adam LaRoche noted in a post game interview from Turner Field. "It'll turn," LaRoche said, "It'll turn. I mean, if you've got a good team at the end of the year it's going to show. If you don't then it's going to show. It's not a situation where you go work harder, you go play harder, swing harder, throw harder. It doesn't work. Baseball doesn't work like that. Never has, so we're not going to try it now."
There's still time to turn it around, as Johnson said, with 105 games left in the season, but as LaRoche pointed out, the season moves quickly. "105 games is a lot," the veteran first baseman said, "But we're going to look up and we'll have 80 games [left] in no time. So I don't want to take that for granted. Yeah, we have time to make a move, but we need to do it soon."