In a December 2010 press conference in Washington, D.C., then-newly-signed Nationals' outfielder Jayson Werth spoke to the gathered press about the 7-year/$126M dollar deal he received which took him from the four-time defending NL East champs in Philadelphia to the nation's capital. Why, outside of the enormous contract, would Werth leave the City of Brotherly love for a team that had just finished the 2010 campaign 69-93 in last place in the same division he'd helped the Phillies dominate?
"I've always been a big fan of an underdog," Werth explained to reporters while seated at a podium in Nationals Park alongside D.C. GM Mike Rizzo, "and I think the situation here in Washington is one that going forward we're going to put something together that I think the city and fans will come accustomed to love and come out and see us on a nightly basis."
"I think over the course of time," Werth continued, "You're going to see and the people of the city are going to see that the Washington Nationals are for real and they're going to bring the type of style of baseball that is going to bring championships to the city." Davey Johnson saw it, maybe not immediately upon taking over in the middle of the 2011 campaign, but as he explained when he decided to return for a second year in Washington in 2012, he made up his mind at the end of last season when he got a good look at the talent the Nationals had on their roster.
Johnson said he made up his mind to come back in, "...the last two or three weeks," of the season, "When I had kind of more the mixture of talent I wanted on the ballclub and [saw] how they all worked together. That was when I really felt, 'Man, there's so much more we can do here and I need to be here to help see it along.'" And the 69-year-old skipper was confident even then that the Nationals had a chance to compete in 2012, telling reporters a pennant was the goal. "Winning the pennant," Johnson said, "Winning the division. Winning the National League."
"I like the way we stack up against everybody in our division," the Nationals' manager explained, "I'm not just sticking out my chest and saying some hot air. My baseball instincts tell me that that's where we need to be, that's where we need to go and that we can get there." The Nats' GM said all winter and throughout Spring Training that the goal this season was to play meaningful games in September, but Washington was playing meaningful games from the start this year. The Nationals were in either first or second place throughout the first six weeks of the season and on May 22nd, they took over first place for good.
When a series of injuries and a lack of production from their outfielders caused issues early, the Nationals had made an important decision a few weeks into the season in late April to bring 19-year-old, 2010 no.1 overall pick Bryce Harper up a little earlier than planned. Davey Johnson wanted the young outfielder with the team from the start, telling anyone who would listen all winter that the kid was ready for the big leagues. After the Nats clinched the NL East division crown last night, Harper admitted to reporters that he felt some pressure upon initially joining the team. "I didn't want to come in here and screw things up, I can yell you that," the outfielder said, "We were already in first place and I didn't want to mess anything up, so you know I was trying to come in here and play my game."
After last night's loss to the Phillies, the rookie outfielder has a .270/.340/.477 line on the year. In the month of September, as the Nats chased down and eventually won the NL East division crown, Harper's posted a .330/.402/.651 line with eight doubles, three triples and seven home runs in what is by far the best month of his rookie campaign.
Gio Gonzalez, another important acquisition on the way to the NL East crown, was acquired this winter in a deal with the Oakland A's and slotted in to pitch atop the Nats' rotation along with Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann. The left-hander who turned 27 in mid-September was the first pitcher to win 20 games for the Nationals since 1953, and he's led the Nationals' staff while putting himself in a position for consideration for the NL Cy Young award. Gonzalez stood on the field in Nationals Park last night as everyone celebrated after the Nats had officially claimed the division and told reporters (as he often does) that it was a complete team effort.
"This is all band of brothers," Gonzalez said, "We feel for each other when the pitcher is getting hit. We feel for each other when we win. So, either way we all bleed the same and we try to win out the same. So, I think this is unbelievable. To do this now... we're October man, this is going to be October baseball now."
"No one expected us to do what we're doing," Gonzalez said, "And to make history and do this... let us enjoy this moment."
While not many people around baseball expected the Nationals to win the NL East, Werth, Rizzo and Davey Johnson knew it could happen. As Jayson Werth stood on field the with his teammates last night after the game and enjoyed the feeling of being NL East champs, he took a few minutes to speak to reporters as thousands of Nationals fans stayed behind to join in the celebration, and the Nats' right fielder admitted that though he thought it could happen eventually, not even he was sure it would happen this soon.
"Maybe I didn't totally expect it in year two," Werth said, "But I was expecting it by year three. So, did it come early? Maybe. I don't know, but after September of last year I was confident it could happen." Last night it did happen. The Nationals clinched the NL East crown, but as everyone was sure to note as they celebrated, it's only the first step. After two more games with the Philadelphia Phillies today and Wednesday, the second season starts.