Steady progress part of Nationals’ master plan

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The Washington Nationals have their sights set higher. Their goals for this charmed 2012 season are weightier things, like winning the National League East, the pennant and, yes, even possibly the World Series.

But they must take the requisite steps to get there first.

They must cross off things such as clinching their first postseason berth (a win over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Thursday night would assure them of at least a spot in the one-game wild-card playoff).

They can still mark their improvements in other ways. They can look at an organization just three seasons removed from back-to-back 100-loss campaigns and see how far they’ve come.

In winning their 90th game Wednesday, the Nationals became the fifth team since 1901 with three straight seasons in which they improved by 10 or more wins over the previous year, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

In 2009, the Nationals won just 59 of 162 games. In 2010, they jumped to 69 wins, and in 2011 they leapt to 80. This year, they’re on pace to win 98.

And they became the first team since the 1906 Boston Red Sox to accomplish that feat without a work stoppage shortening their baseline season.

But that improvement is met with little more than a nod and a shrug from those who’ve been a part of making it happen.

“For me, the difference is that from Day 1 it wasn’t like, ‘Let’s just do a little bit better this year,’ said reliever Drew Storen. “It was like, ‘Let’s win.’”

The Nationals talked a big game in spring training, knowing the talent they had on their roster, and they expected to be where they are this late in September: playing games with pennant-race implications.

Manager Davey Johnson went so far as to say that the organization should fire him if they didn’t make the playoffs, let alone simply improve their win total.

Johnson saw the improvement in other ways. On Thursday, he brushed off the 10-plus-win improvement as just one way of viewing things. For him, it was in the development of the players, of seeing starting spots in the lineup and the rotation solidified and the question marks lessened. On a team he saw at the beginning of 2011 as having four or five positions locked up, he now sees all eight.

“This is about progression and improvement in their talent,” Johnson said. “They’ve never been in a pennant race. Never probably even thought about trading [for] somebody at the trade deadline. Most of the last-place clubs, poor teams, they don’t do a lot of [acquiring]. The biggest thing for us was this July 31 we didn’t have any [glaring] needs. Every other contender was out getting stuff. That should tell you, more than the three years, that we’re comfortable with our organization.”

That progression was reflected in the clubhouse, where the players have seen the biggest shift the past few years, culminating in this season.

“We were very confident in spring training,” Storen said. “And you could tell a lot of people were like, ‘OK, yeah, yeah, yeah.’ Because it’s the same thing that’s written every year about a team that’s trying to make an improvement. So you can sit there and talk all you want in spring training, but our goal was to prove to people that we’re not just saying it because we want to say it. We’re going to actually do it.

“Look at all the stuff we’ve gone through. Every team goes through it, but it can kill a good season. The confidence we had from the start, it’s because of how content we were with how great the team was.”

Notes: Right-hander Chien-Ming Wang will start for the Nationals on Sunday against the Milwaukee Brewers, Johnson said, opting to go with the veteran sinkerballer over reliever Craig Stammen.

Johnson didn’t want to lose Stammen’s services out of the bullpen for what would be about a week by starting him. It will be Wang’s first major league start since June 19.

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