The vibe is different around the Nationals this year - and not just because expectations and payroll have significantly increased.
The not-so-subtle difference isn’t lost on shortstop Ian Desmond, who said there’s more chatter among teammates in situations where players previously kept to themselves.
“You can tell the chemistry is a little better this year,” Desmond said Wednesday before NatsFest. “On the field, yesterday for instance, I was talking to Mike (Morse) in left field. Jayson (Werth) was talking to the center fielder. Danny (Espinosa) was talking to (Adam) LaRoche at first base. All while we were on defense. This is like conversations going on while the game is being played; we’re all trying to help each other out. Last year, it wasn’t really like that. Last year, it was kind of, not an awkward silence, but nobody wanted to step on each other’s toes.”
Maybe last year, Nationals players did most of their talking in the dugout. Now, with veterans like Werth, LaRoche, Alex Cora and Jerry Hairston Jr. on the roster, guys know what’s expected of them - and egos are checked at the clubhouse door.
“I don’t even know if it’s only the veterans,” Desmond said. “The younger guys know what to do. I know what to do. I think in the past, we assumed things would be let slide. This year, I think the older guys have set a precedent that there’s no more bull. We’re going to go out and act like professionals. If you don’t like it, you can have some repercussions.”
Lest fans think newcomers are riding roughshod over a bunch of scared rookies and freshmen, reliever Drew Storen pointed out that the veterans have merely taken the lead in building a cohesive unit.
“To see how those guys go about their business, you can see why they’ve been on successful teams,” said Storen. “You can see what they expect out of themselves and from their teammates. There’s just a lot of camaraderie. ... That’s part of that veteran presence. They know what that is. You are like a family, a 25-man family. We’re going to go through ups and downs during the year. It’s not an easy job. If we want to play the way we are, we need that.”
As the Nationals’ closer, Storen knows all about ninth-inning, game-on-the-line pressure. But it’s how players react over the course of a 162-game season that dictates success and failure, he explained.
“I always compare baseball to a mental roller coaster. It’s a mental and emotional roller coaster throughout the year,” Storen said. “You’re going to have your highs and lows. But with that leadership and camaraderie, it starts evening out and you stay more even keel throughout the year.”
A few years ago, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman was one of those impressionable rookies. Now he’s a well-paid team leader, and the younger guys look to him to set an example.
But even Zimmerman has experienced the benefit of the more experienced players general manager Mike Rizzo has assembled around him.
“They know how to win. They know how to go about their business every day and they’re very professional,” Zimmerman said. “They play the game the right way. I’m not saying we didn’t do that the last couple of years, but you bring more guys over here where the pressure’s on everyone to be like that ... and it’s contagious.”
So is the feeling that everyone will be held accountable - and for more than just wins and losses.
“Accountability is the No. 1 thing we lacked last year,” Desmond said. “Attention to detail and things like that ... got slid under the rug. This year, there’s going to be some accountability for it. Hopefully, guys will step up to the plate.”