The Nationals spent a good deal of spring training talking about the differences in their clubhouse.
How the veteran leadership and winning attitude would change things this year. How the disdain for losing had finally permeated all corners of the room and how accountability would be pushed to the forefront as the team attempts to move toward building a winning tradition.
“I think we’re going to have a good mix of young people with good solid veterans,” said Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner on the eve of his team’s seventh season in Washington. “I think the whole approach in the clubhouse is going to be totally different than in years past.”
“They play the game the right way,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman of his new veteran teammates. “I’m not saying we didn’t do that the last couple of years, but you bring more guys over here where the pressure’s on everyone to be like that … and it’s contagious.”
Their first opportunity to prove those statements comes Thursday afternoon when the Nationals open the 2011 season against Derek Lowe and the Atlanta Braves at 1:05 p.m., weather permitting. But be forewarned - they don’t plan on doing it all in one day.
“It’s a long season,” cautioned right fielder Jayson Werth. “What happens at the start of the season doesn’t really come into play at the end of the season, but I understand it gets magnified at the beginning. Hopefully we can get off to a good start and get out in front and never look back.”
Werth could just as easily have been talking about himself - or any other player on a Nationals roster filled with players looking to make a good impression.
But whether they were rookies or seasoned veterans, guys making their first Opening Day lineup or their 20th (Ivan Rodriguez), as the players settled into the home clubhouse at Nationals Park on Wednesday - a scene Lerner likened to the first day of sleep-away camp with everyone unpacking their bags - everyone seemed to be in agreement that Thursday will be a special day, regardless of the outcome.
“It’s just, I don’t know, it’s like a dream,” said second baseman Danny Espinosa, making his first Opening Day start in the major leagues. “To me, it’s still like the dream that you always thought of as a little kid and it’s coming true.”
“Opening Day is awesome,” said Werth. “I really enjoy Opening Day. It’s probably, maybe not the most fun you can have playing baseball, but with all the festivities and all the stuff they have planned - it’s a fun time of year.”
While Werth and fellow veterans like Zimmerman and Rodriguez noted the spectacle of Opening Day never gets dull, there was a clear difference in their excitement and that of Rule 5 pick Brian Broderick, who had never before set foot in a major league clubhouse.
“A little different,” Broderick said looking around. “Yesterday I walked up to the stadium when we got here and then the banners on the board were lighting up and the names were popping up. Mine was like the third one to pop up and I just stood there, kind of just in awe of it all.”
They get to put the awe behind them Thursday along with six weeks of practice, hype and anticipation and maybe even some nervousness for the newcomers.
“I’ll have some, just like any other game,” Espinosa said. “If you don’t have nerves and you don’t have normal jitters before a game, you’re not there, you’re not in the moment. You should. You should have that jittery feeling when you play. It’s part of the excitement.”