Davey Johnson's Washington Nationals were one of the best teams in baseball in the last month and a half of the 2013 season, but the late run the Nats went on wasn't enough. "We dug our own hole and we just couldn't dig out of it," Johnson told reporters last September once the Nationals were mathematically eliminated from contention for a postseason berth. "You can't have a first-half like that," Jayson Werth said last month at NatsFest. As well as they played down the stretch, it wasn't enough after the rough start to the defense of their 2012 NL East crown.
"I always knew that we were going to make a run," Werth said. "It just took us a little too long to get there."
Veteran right-hander Craig Stammen, the 29-year-old Nats' '05 12th Round pick, will return to Washington, D.C. for his sixth MLB season this year, and as he explained in his own interview from the Gaylord Resort and Convention Center where NatsFest was held, the Nationals can't afford the same sort of start to the 2014 campaign.
"I don't think there's like one thing you can say 'went wrong' like we've got to fix this," Stammen said when asked to diagnose what caused the Nationals' rough first few months last summer. "I think we just got off to a bad start, and the year before we got off to such a good start it gave us confidence and we could really play very relaxed. And it felt like the whole year [in 2013] we were just fighting it, fighting through the mud is what it felt like, basically.
"We just couldn't get out of that rut, and then at the end of the year we kind of got going a little bit it was too little, too late. So, I think the first month is going to be huge for us this season. If we get off to a good start, we're going to be like, 'Alright, we've got it figured out.' If we struggle, it's going to be a fight like it was last year." And that's when things will get difficult mentally as well.
"You have a bad first month," Stammen said, and you start thinking. "'Is this going to be like last year?' 'Are we just a team that's going to underperform?' But, it's a long season, so even if we have a bad first month, it's not the end of the [world]. But, I'm saying, if we get off to a good start, it's going to propel us to things that are even better than what we did in 2012."
What Stammen did last season was similar to what he did as the Nationals won the division in 2012. The veteran reliever followed up on a +0.8 fWAR season working out of the Nats' pen with a +1.0 fWAR campaign in 2013 as the Washington's right-handed long reliever. After posting a 2.34 ERA and a 3.45 FIP with 36 walks (3.67 BB/9) and 87 Ks (8.86 K/9) in 88 1/3 IP in his fourth major league season, Stammen had a 2.76 ERA, a 2.82 FIP, 27 walks (2.98 BB/9) and 79 Ks (8.71 K/9) in 81 2/3 IP last year.
Stammen hasn't spoken to new manager Matt Williams about what his role will be in 2014, but he said he'll talk to pitching coach Steve McCatty in Spring Training and make sure they're all on the same page.
"I'm assuming because we haven't had that many changing parts that I'll be probably be doing a lot of the same stuff," Stammen said, and he's perfectly comfortable with that. "You always want your role to increase. You always want to pitch in more crucial spots, and I think I got that towards the end of the year. It's obviously more exciting to pitch in closer ballgames, but also pitching the two, three, four innings, I like doing that too, it makes me still want to be a starter." But he's happy pitching out of the Nats' 'pen.
Stammen, like most everyone with the team, is just eager to get back at it, especially with the new additions the Nationals have made this winter.
"We added some big-time pieces without really losing a whole lot," he said. "So it will be exciting to see where we can get off to a good start and see where we can go towards the end of the year."
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