- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2015

VIERA, Fla. — As pitchers and catchers trickled into the Nationals‘ clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium on Thursday, there were hugs for old friends and introductory handshakes for new ones. Well-traveled minor-leaguers shared conversations about their respective hometowns. Franchise staples compared golf games. Jerry Blevins, a left-handed reliever with one career at-bat, pulled a shining new batting helmet over his head and grinned.

It’s hard to be unhappy on report day, when baseball wakes up from its three-month slumber and spring training finally begins. On this day, every team can win the World Series. Every player can be an all-star. There’s a first-day-of-school aura in the room, a nervous but exciting energy. For some, it’s another year in the same row of lockers with many of the same people. For others, it’s the first day of a new chapter.

“I’m still learning names, stumbling over forgetting names, trying to figure out which field is which field and all that kind of stuff,” new reliever Casey Janssen said. “I’ll get there.”

Pitchers and catchers reported to Viera on Thursday and will have their first organized workout Saturday morning. All 60 players — the 40-man roster, plus 20 non-roster invitees — must check in by Tuesday. The Nationals will hold their first full-squad workout Feb. 26.

In many ways, the Nationals begin this season as they began the previous two. They’re favored to win the National League East and widely regarded as a World Series contender. Their starting lineup is solid from top to bottom, and their pitching rotation is among the best in baseball.

Yet even by those lofty standards, this year is different. The Nationals aren’t just a World Series contender in 2015 — according to Bovada LV, among other online sportsbooks, they’re the odds-on favorite to win it. Their pitching rotation isn’t just one of the best in the majors. With little argument, it is the best, up there with some of the top rotations of the past decade.

SEE ALSO: Teammates excited to welcome Max Scherzer to the fold

Are the Nationals buying into the hype?

“I’ve heard this for the last couple years now,” starter Gio Gonzalez said. “I just want to enjoy it. I think we have such a great group of guys to just kind of take some of that pressure off of us, and just go out there and compete. We have an unbelievable lineup, a great rotation. Now it’s just us doing our job and trying to win some ball games.”

The Nationals have won the NL East in two of the past three years but failed to make it out of the first round of the playoffs each time. In 2012, a heartbreaking ninth-inning collapse in Game 5 doomed them against the St. Louis Cardinals. In October, it was a silent lineup and two questionable pitching decisions by manager Matt Williams that made the difference against the San Francisco Giants.

Should the Nationals win a division title and bow out in the National League Division Series again this year, those two aberrations would suddenly become part of a worrisome trend. Players, however, are more confident than concerned.

“I think being backed into a corner a time or two [last year], coming out fighting, coming out swinging, we showed a lot of progress,” starter Doug Fister said. “We may not have gotten where we want to be, but we showed each other and ourselves what we’re made of, and [that] me and the other 24 guys in here are going to come out fighting for you and get the job done.”

Some of Washington’s steadiest contributors from last season are gone. Setup man Tyler Clippard was traded to Oakland in exchange for shortstop-turned-second baseman Yunel Escobar. First baseman Adam LaRoche and infielder Asdrubal Cabrera left in free agency. Minor-league player of the year Steven Souza was traded to Tampa Bay.

However, one addition dwarfed all those losses. Late last month, the Nationals signed marquee free agent Max Scherzer to a seven-year, $210 million contract, the most expensive deal ever signed by a right-handed pitcher. Scherzer, the 2013 American League Cy Young award-winner, is expected to take an already-stellar rotation up a notch.

Scherzer will join a group that already featured Fister, Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann. Many of them throw hard, but they all bring slightly different pitching styles to the table.

“There’s no break,” Janssen said. “There’s a lot of different looks. A lot of different strengths that each pitcher brings. Seems like they’re going to battle you every night. Good luck scoring.”

The expectations in Viera have never been higher, but players don’t seem to care. Gonzalez said the Nationals are not going to dwell on last year’s playoff exit or nitpick every that went wrong. Their process and mentality won’t change. And the ultimate goal is what it’s always been.

“Last year was a great year for us,” catcher Wilson Ramos said. “This is another year. We have to try to work, try to do everything right, and see what happens.”

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