NEW YORK - The big day is finally here.
Months of waiting, speculating about roster moves, sifting through minor league signings and watching players practice bunt plays - that's all behind us. Now we have actual, meaningful baseball.
This kind of feels like the first day of school, except not, because this is a little more fun. The Nationals open their 2014 season this afternoon (weather permitting) against the Mets, with Nats ace Stephen Strasburg squaring off against right-hander Dillon Gee, who was 4-2 with a 2.72 ERA in six starts against Washington last season.
Opening day, of course, marks a fresh start for every big league organization. Everyone has hope on this day, even the teams that finished the 2013 campaign at the back of the pack.
The Nationals went into last season with the highest of hopes, and while an 86-win season is nothing to sneeze at, it was certainly a disappointing result given the expectations surrounding that squad. The World Series talk was flying all around before the season began, and despite the high level of talent that the Nationals possessed, a second straight playoff berth was not to be.
"We were really confident last year," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "It was a really relaxed, 'Hey, we're the team to beat,' and it just didn't happen.
"I think if anything, it was a little bit humbling, that regardless of how good you're supposed to be, you've still got to go do it. So I think we learned something there. And we realized how important these first few games are, too."
The Nats went 13-14 in April last year, and trailed the Braves by 4 1/2 games just 30 days into the season. They dug themselves a hole by starting slow, and while they played at an incredibly high level down the stretch, it was too little, too late.
A lot has stayed the same from then until now, as all eight starting position players are still in place, the bulk of the rotation is the same and most bullpen names will be recognizable to even the casual Nats fan. But we've seen a handful of changes made over the last six months, as well.
Matt Williams has replaced Davey Johnson as Nats manager, bringing an aggressive offensive mentality and a focus on the defensive fundamentals. General manager Mike Rizzo upgraded the rotation by adding right-hander Doug Fister (who begins the season on the disabled list with a strained right lat), outfielder Nate McLouth and left-handed reliever Jerry Blevins. Ross Detwiler finds himself in the bullpen, and for now, both Tanner Roark and Taylor Jordan find themselves in the rotation.
Yet again, the Nats feel they have a strong squad in place, and yet again, people are noticing. For the second straight year, Sports Illustrated picked the Nationals to win the World Series, and more than a quarter of the 44 experts that ESPN.com polled for its predictions page have the Nats winning it all. Inside the Nats clubhouse, they remain quietly optimistic, as well.
"I think we've learned a lot from the last year dealing with the expectations," Strasburg said. "Obviously, having a fresh new manager, definitely a bulldog there. I think people are excited again."
"We've got a world of talent in here," pitcher Jordan Zimmermann said. "On paper, we're pretty good, but we've still got to go play the games. Last year, we weren't able to do that, so hopefully it's a different story this year."
As you can tell, the internal level of belief in this club is pretty high going into the season. While the 2013 season is still fresh in the minds of the players and front office staffers, it doesn't seem to be affecting the feeling that this is a team that's ready to again play into October.
The Nats feel the talent is in place, the leadership is sound, and they again believe that big things are coming.
"If we mess this up, it's on us," LaRoche said. "Riz has done everything he can do, I love the manager we've got here, and we've got the talent to do it. Like last year, this will be on us if it doesn't happen."