With the countdown to spring training in its final stages, we're counting down the five biggest storylines facing the Nationals in Viera. We finish today with spring storyline No. 1: The expectations of another NL East title and possible trip to the World Series...
The Washington Nationals have never reported for spring training with anything close to resembling legitimate expectations hovering over them. For the first seven years of its existence, this franchise would have considered a winning record major progress, let alone winning its division or aspiring to reach the World Series.
Those days are no more. When Nationals pitchers and catchers officially report to Viera, Fla., tomorrow, they'll do so as the consensus "Best Team in Baseball" and the sport's most-popular pick to win the World Series.
Nobody's ignoring this franchise anymore. Nobody's setting the bar low. Everyone expects the Nationals to at worst repeat as NL East champions, at best hoist the Commissioner's Trophy on the final night of the season and a couple days later parade down Pennsylvania Ave.
Is there suddenly pressure on a team that has never experienced anything like that before? You bet.
"There's always a little bit of added pressure when you're expected to win," new rotation member Dan Haren said. "I think the biggest thing is just going out and playing the game, not really thinking about yesterday or thinking about tomorrow. Just play every game like it is. The season is so long, and think when it comes down to it, the cream usually rises to the top. ... Usually at the end, the teams that are supposed to be there, are there."
Haren is one of the few players on the Nationals' roster who have previous experience on clubs in this position. His Angels were widely expected to ride slugger Albert Pujols and a rock-solid rotation deep into October last season. Instead, they got off to a ragged start in April, couldn't recover in time and wound up missing the playoffs altogether.
Haren, though, thinks he can impart some of the wisdom he acquired through last year's experience in Anaheim to his new teammates. He won't be alone in that regard. Adam LaRoche played for back-to-back division winners in Atlanta early in his career. New closer Rafael Soriano just won the AL East title with the Yankees. And Jayson Werth played for a 2008 Phillies team coming off its first division crown in more than a decade, one with lofty expectations that proceeded to win the World Series.
If anyone on the Nationals' roster has a sense for what's in store this year, it's Werth.
"I think everybody will figure it out pretty quick," he said. "We'll notice the intensity on the road, opposing teams' fans will treat us different. But it'll be good. There won't be any meaningless games. That's OK. We've got the type of team that can overcome that."
One of the hallmarks of the 2012 Nationals was its ability not to get too high when things were going well or too low when things weren't going well. Despite their relative inexperience, they navigated their way through the season with the maturity of a veteran-laden squad.
That experience should help the Nationals as they embark on a 2013 season that will be closely watched and scrutinized throughout the baseball world. There will be more media in Viera this spring than any previous year. There will be more nationally televised games than in the past. Attendance will be up both at home and on the road. And anything less than another trip to the postseason -- and then victory come October -- will be treated as a disappointment.
What the players who gather in the Florida sun this week can't do, of course, is start thinking about October right now. There's far too much that must happen first, and the more this team can block out all the external pressure and attention, the more likely it will be to live up to the lofty expectations.
"I think it makes you hungrier," catcher Kurt Suzuki said. "I think all of us here are professional enough to know that the talk about being the team to beat, that's all cool and stuff, but we've still got work to do. We still have to go and work hard. We've got a long ways ahead of us."