Ryan Zimmerman is no stranger to home openers. Today is his seventh, yet none of them has dawned with the immense expectations for success that this afternoon's game against the Reds brings. Still, the Nationals third baseman doesn't seem to think this opener is any different than the others he's experienced.
"No," Zimmerman said in the Washington clubhouse Thursday morning.
No? Not even a little bit?
"I mean, every year, every team thinks it can win. ... Honestly, every team I've been on, we believe we can win," he said. "I guess if you really want to get down to it, it feels a little different. But to be honest with you, a game is a game and obviously, we have a better team, but it doesn't mean (anything). There's a little more hope."
That hope is what's set tongues from D.C. and beyond wagging in a far more positive sense than the Nationals are used to. For the first time since the club moved from Montreal before the 2005 campaign, there's a noticeable buzz surrounding the Nats. People who several years ago resigned themselves to 100-loss seasons are now boldly talking playoffs in April.
"The culture has definitely changed, for sure," he said. "I think that's what's different. I wouldn't say opening day feels different. Opening day is easy to get excited for, whether you know you're going to lose 100 games or whether you know you have a chance, like we do this year. I think the better question would be to ask me June 15 if it feels any different than opening day. Opening day is easy to get pumped for, whether you stink or you're good."
That's what the Nationals are aiming for in 2012 - a sustained drive, not a flash in the pan. It's what drove general manager Mike Rizzo's offseason machinations, what permeated the Space Coast Stadium clubhouse through spring training, what came north from Viera, Fla., packed as carefully as uniforms, bats and athletic tape.
Zimmerman and his teammates are acutely aware of the lofty expectations that surround them. Aware, but not consumed by them.
"The best thing about this team is that we understand that just because we're supposed to be good doesn't make us good," he explained. "We still have to go out there and play. The Yankees are supposed to win a World Series every year. That doesn't mean when people play the Yankees, they just let them win. I think we're such a young team, we're so competitive and we want to be good, I think that's what makes us (even keel). We're not as experienced as the Phillies or the Yankees or teams like that. We have to get to that point. We understand that along the way we're going to run into some bumps. We just need to learn from those mistakes and not let them happen in July and August. The first part of the year, we're going to make our mistakes but that drive is what keeps those expectations in check for us."
It's important to acknowledge and recognize the expectations, Zimmerman said, but not let them become a crushing weight the Nationals can't escape. For now, he'll take the glass-half-full approach, enjoy a perspective he hasn't encountered before and treat the expectations as a motivator.
"It's definitely more fun, I'll tell you that," Zimmerman said with a smile. "It's way more fun knowing that people expect you to win than expecting you to be 20 games back in June. That's no fun. It's definitely a lot more exciting coming to the park every day knowing that you have a chance to win every single game."