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“This year it’ll be like ‘OK, we’re supposed to be here.’ But we’ve still got to go do it.”

There is something people like about a team that hasn’t previously won making its emergence. There is something mystical about their wins, when viewed in the larger sense. Something romantic. When you’ve won, and you’re supposed to continue, there can be fewer starry-eyed feelings about a team from the outside.

Inside? One quiet spring training morning last week, Johnson was asked if he liked it better to be favored.

“Oh, amen,” he said.

“It’s one thing trying to climb the hill. It’s another thing when you actually have that X on your back,” Johnson said on another occasion. “But it just makes it more fun. … I’m going to take the heat if we don’t play well, and they can have all of the trophies when they do play well. I have high expectations, and I know everybody in that room has high expectations. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s a great feeling.”

Everywhere the Nationals have gone this spring, more opposing coaches, scouts and officials offer a low whistle or a raised eyebrow when the topic of how good they could be this year is broached. Or, if it isn’t, it’s often brought up unsolicited. Even their problems are coveted.

“They’re a good club,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “For me, they’re still the club to beat in our division.”

Just another example of how the stakes have been raised.

But what that expectation does, really, is help put whatever they do accomplish in context.

The playoffs may be a crapshoot, but missing them altogether, or failing to move past what they did in 2012, won’t be met with an “aw, shucks,” reaction any longer.

“Say we lose three in a row, we’re not going to say ‘What’s wrong with this team? We’re supposed to be the best team how did so-and-so beat us?’” LaRoche said. “It’ll be an end of the year thing, if we’re not in the playoffs.

“Instead of ‘Man, we had a really good year, just missed the playoffs, whatever.’ When you’re a really good team, all of a sudden, the record doesn’t even matter. It goes to ‘What went wrong? Whose fault was it?’ Usually it’s the critics, fans, whoever, who make it a big story.”

But the Nationals are still an organization whose undistinguished moments account for more time than their supremacy. And for those who lived through those days, the memories haven’t been erased.

No one will tell you they would rather be unheralded or under the radar. Or worse, overlooked entirely. They know they should make the playoffs. They hope it will be more than that.”It’s a good thing when you’re in this position as a team, but if you’re not in the playoffs, it’s disappointing,” LaRoche said. “I don’t want to say that that’s not our goal, to get to the playoffs. Obviously it’s not the end goal, but it’s step one. Getting there.”Unfortunately after that, a lot of the time, it’s who’s hot at the right time. All bets are off.”