- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2009

VIERA, Fla. | Players sauntered into the clubhouse and upon seeing a familiar face would drop their duffel bags and extend a hand and a smile. Balls cracked off bats, falling in the gaps or perhaps clearing the outfield fence, bringing even more smiles. Guys with long injury histories proclaimed themselves 100 percent healthy, smiling proudly all along.

Yes, the first day of spring training is always the happiest day of the year. It’s a day to forget about anything bad that has happened and believe that anything is possible.

The pitchers and catchers (and a handful of position players) who reported Saturday to Washington Nationals camp espoused those good vibes. At the same time, they know all too well the reality of the situation.

This is a franchise that lost 102 games last year, and it’s going to take more than the power of positive thinking to erase those bad memories.

“We’ve got a long road and a lot of work to do,” said left-hander Scott Olsen, one of four key players added this offseason.

The long road begins on the lush, green practice fields behind Space Coast Stadium, where on Saturday six position players spent two hours taking batting practice with new hitting coach Rick Eckstein, who offered up constant advice and words of encouragement to each guy who stepped into the cage.

The routine will be repeated for the next seven weeks until the team breaks camp in the hope that the work here leads to better results in the regular season. The consensus around the complex Saturday was that the results, almost by default, have to be better.

“I don’t think there’s a way we could lose 100 games,” Olsen said, “if we have people that are healthy.”

There’s the qualifier: if they’re healthy. After watching an endless stream of starters suffer major injuries last season, the Nationals recognize the importance of keeping everyone on the field and intact this time around.

Eight of the nine members of Washington’s Opening Day lineup - all but shortstop Cristian Guzman - spent time on the disabled list in 2008. So did three starting pitchers and the closer. The result was a nightmare.

So there was genuine reason for optimism Saturday, with first baseman Nick Johnson (286 games missed because of injury the past two seasons) looking free and easy as he took batting practice and right-hander Shawn Hill (three DL stints the past two years) reporting no pain from his bullpen throwing sessions.

For those players and others returning from injury, the mere act of being on the field in good health was reason to celebrate.

“Yeah, it’s been a while,” Johnson said. “It’s good. The body feels good.”

Improved health alone, though, won’t make the Nationals a pennant contender. That would require a laundry list of events to happen all at once.

Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes would need to progress into budding stars. Ryan Zimmerman would need to take the next step to becoming a legitimate star. John Lannan and Joel Hanrahan would need to build on the foundation they’ve already established and become frontline pitchers. And top prospects Jordan Zimmermann and Collin Balester would need to crack the big league roster and prove they’re ready to succeed.

But the ability to perform on the field doesn’t count for much if 25 guys can’t get along off the field.

Several players cited last year’s Tampa Bay Rays, who morphed from baseball’s laughingstock to American League champions. They did so in part because of a talented, young roster that seemed to come together at once. But they also did it with the kind of clubhouse camaraderie many say was lacking with the Nationals last season.

“You could tell that they were in it together,” Hill said of the Rays. “It wasn’t just a professional baseball team going out and doing their job. They were having fun doing it. Is every team going to be like that? No. … But I think in order to turn things around from where they’ve been, you have to have some of that.”

So look for a looser, more fun-loving Nationals clubhouse this spring. And don’t look for many references to the misery of 2008.

As far as everyone around here is concerned, that’s ancient history.

“Whatever happened with the Nationals, that’s in the past,” said right-hander Daniel Cabrera, another newcomer. “We have to look forward.”

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