Both ESPN the Magazine and Sports Illustrated predicted last year that the Washington Nationals would win the World Series in 2013. The Nats failed to return to the postseason, however, finishing at 86-76, 10.0 games behind the Atlanta Braves after winning the division by 4.0 games with 98 wins in 2012.
Sports Illustrated picked the Nationals again this season, revealing their pick on the cover of their MLB preview this week.
ESPN's panel of analysts weighed in with their predictions this weekend. Out of 44 writers asked, all but four saw the Nationals winning the NL East in 2014. The four who didn't pick the Nationals, thought the Braves would defend their division title. All four, however, picked the Nats for one of the Wild Card spots. 12 of the 40 who picked the Nationals in the NL East thought they would win the World Series as well.
All six of Sports Illustrated's experts liked the Nationals in the East. Two of the six predicted the World Series winner would come from Washington, D.C.
"It is what it is," Stephen Strasburg told reporters on Saturday when asked whether there was any pressure involved in once again being picked to win it all. "I think a lot of it has to do with how much talent is on our roster and how good we look on paper. But, that's not going to carry you the whole way, so, the biggest thing is that we've got to stick together and we've got to focus on what we can control and that's the effort we put in on a daily basis."
"I don't subscribe to Sports Illustrated or ESPN the Magazine," the 25-year-old, '09 no.1 overall pick continued. "So I really don't read that stuff too much.
"I think maybe from a media perspective, it can kind of change the way our club is viewed. I think the bottom line is, in the clubhouse we know how hard it is to even get to the playoffs on a year-in-year-out basis, and that's something that we're shooting for and like we've seen in the years past, anything can happen once you get there. It's not necessarily the best team on paper, the team with the best record throughout the course of the year, it's just whoever is hot. So like I said earlier, I think it's important that we stay the course, focus on the process and try to be playing our best baseball in October."
Strasburg, coming off a +3.2 fWAR campaign in his fourth MLB season, which saw him go (8-9) with a 3.00 ERA, 3.21 FIP, 16 HRs (0.79 HR/9) and 56 walks (2.75 BB/9) allowed and 191 Ks (9.39 K/9) collected in 30 starts and a career-high 183 IP, talked to reporters this weekend about starting on Opening Day on Monday in New York's Citi Field.
The Nationals' right-hander will be on the mound for his third straight season opener, so he said he has a good idea what to expect and how to prepare for the experience.
"Just treat it like another game," he said. "The biggest thing is just working around the extra ceremonies. The guys getting called out to the lines and everything. And if they have a flyover, they have a flyover. But it's just one start of many and you've just to focus on the process and you've just got to focus on the end result and that's playing your best baseball at the end of the year."
Were the high expectations for the Nationals last season really to blame for the way the 2013 campaign played out? If so, the Nats are going to have to apply what they learned from the experience, because, as noted above, the expectations are just as high this season.
Strasburg said he thinks he and his teammates have grown from having gone through what they did in falling short of their goal of returning to the postseason last fall.
"I think much like it was last year, there are obviously expectations," Strasburg said. "And I think we've learned a lot from the last year, dealing with those expectations. Obviously having a fresh new manager, and definitely a bulldog there, and I think people are excited again. We didn't finish where we wanted to be, but we finished ten games over .500 last year. I think [that is] a really good season for a lot of organizations."
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One important lesson Strasburg himself learned last season was how to make your way through a full schedule of starts. Freed of the restrictions which led to his shutdown in 2012, he battled through injury issues, spent time on the DL, but was available in September as the disappointing season came to a close and as he explained on Saturday, heading into his fifth major league campaign, he has a better idea of how to prepare for a full run.
"Just from talking to guys that have been through it before and have figured out the puzzle of what it's like to stay healthy and throw 200+ innings every year and make all their starts. They all say, 'It's not a sprint, it's a marathon.' And you really just have to not try to change your program from one bad start to the next, you've just got to stay the course."
When he was named Matt Williams' Opening Day starter in what will be the new Nats' skipper first regular season game on the bench, Strasburg talked the importance of looking at the big picture. As big a deal as it is to start the season opener, he said he hopes it's not what he's remembered for when his playing days are over.
"I've said this before," Strasburg said last week. "I hope my career isn't reflected in how many Opening Day starts I have. I think there are a lot of guys in this rotation that deserve it and I'm just the first one out and I think every game is going to be just as important and the biggest goal as a team is that we're playing in the playoffs and I would definitely want to focus on trying to make starts in the playoffs more so than trying to make Opening Day starts."
Having played in the majors for seventeen seasons himself, Williams is well aware of the first game's importance and put it in perspective in announcing Strasburg would go in Game 1 of 162.
"It's an honor for anybody that's chosen to go Opening Day," Williams said. "Is it more important than any other start he's going to make throughout the year? No. But it's Opening Day. And so he's ready for it, he's excited for it and so are we."
In the end, as high as the preseason prognisticator's expectations are for the Nationals, the players, like Strasburg, expect just as much.
"I think the sky is the limit with this club," Strasburg said.
It all starts twenty-four hours from now...