- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Michael Morse, among other Nationals, said it best: “I can’t wait for next season.”

Neither can you if you’re a Washington baseball fan. When was the last time anybody in these horsehide parts could say that and really mean it?

With two games left in this turnaround season, the Nationals had a chance to finish with a winning record - big stuff in this land of perpetual sporting swoons. How big? Well, the last time a ballclub with a “W” on its caps won more than it lost, Richard Nixon was a rookie president (1969). The time before that, Harry Truman was about to vacate the White House (1952). So even coming close was significant

Our well-earned baseball rep as Loserville, USA (i.e. three pennants in 71 years) resumed after the Expos moved south in 2005. Although the first gang of Nationals finished an aberrational 81-81, that modest achievement was marred by a 31-50 second half. From 2006 through 2010, Our Little Guys Who Couldn’t went 331-478, a non-winning percentage of .409.


Now, thank heaven, it should be goodbye to all that. In this case, the ancient rounders dirge of “Wait ‘Til Next Year” sounds more like the “Hallelujah Chorus.” Putting it a bit cornily, the 2012 Nats should be able to Handel almost any challenge.

Call ‘12 the Year of the Big Breakthrough with a rise to postseason contention. And then call ‘13 the Year of the Bigger Breakthrough to elite status in the NL East.

Who’s afraid of those former divisional bully boys in Philly and Atlanta - didn’t the Nats just whip ‘em six times in seven games? As for the Mets and Marlins, get lost. Go pick on somebody your own size, meaning mediocre.

Why all this rampant optimism over the immediate future? Let us count the ways:

Wilson Ramos, one of the best young catchers around and a dude with pop in his bat to boot. Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa, middle infielders with much better than middling skills. Adam LaRoche, first baseman nonpareil and free of the shoulder miseries that ruined his 2011 season. Ryan Zimmerman, enough said. Morse, still approaching his peak as a slugger. Jayson Werth, sure to rebound after a pressure-laden first year in town.

And, oh yes, the pitching rotation. Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, those twin testimonials to Tommy John surgery. John Lannan, mound mixmaster deluxe. Chien-Ming Wang, lately flashing the form that made him a two-time 19-game winner for the Yankees. As for filling the last two spots, pick from those kids who have sparkled like spun gold this month: Ross Detwiler, Brad Peacock and Tommy Milone.

Bullpen, did you say bullpen? Setup man Tyler Clippard and closer Drew Storen are lights out, to not quite coin a phrase. Henry Rodriguez could make it three of a kind if he ever learns where that 100 mph fastball is going.

Above and beyond all this, Davey Johnson in the dugout as one of baseball’s best brains. If you harbor any doubt that Johnson will be back, forget it. These Nats, with almost all of their core players under 30, bring to mind his early Mets teams that went from 68 to 90 victories in 1984 and won a World Series two years later.

Of course, potential pitfalls loom. It’s risky to project flashy September stats over a full season because some of these youngsters might prove phony phenoms. And GM Mike Rizzo absolutely must land a proven slugger in the free agent market, somebody who can deliver 35 homers and 100 RBI while batting fifth behind Zimmerman and Morse. Too often in ‘11 was the Nats’ offense strictly of the popgun variety.

Yet in 2012 and years to come, sunshine is likely to spread welcome warmth over the Nats and an incrementally increasing fan base. For too many decades now, the Redskins have owned this town from a sporting standpoint. Could there come a day when our beloved NFL team is merely an afterthought among much of D.C.’s sporting public?

The Nationals, who should always open the season at home with the president of the United States throwing out the first ball, will begin 2012 instead against the Cubbies at Wrigley Field on April 5, exactly 161 days from now.

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