Mark Lerner: “We’re going to the World Series this year”

NatsFest is under way at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, and it didn’t take long for fans to start cheering. At a “State of the Nationals” forum for season ticket holders featuring principal owner Mark Lerner and general manager Mike Rizzo, Lerner drew loud applause by proclaiming, “We’re going to the World Series this year.”

There’s little doubt that has been the focus since the Nationals’ disheartening loss to the Cardinals in Game 5 of the National League Division Series in October. And over the din of aluminum bats striking balls in batting cages, Rizzo told the team’s most faithful fans that he’s used the pall of the losing clubhouse as equal parts memory and motivation.

“It was something after Game 5,” Rizzo recalled. “I remember talking to the guys in the clubhouse after we’d lost and it was like a morgue, as you can imagine. Guys were bummed out, I was bummed out. I just said one thing to the guys, because they didn’t want to hear from me or anybody else: Don’t forget how you feel right now, and do everything you can in the offseason so this doesn’t happen again. We feel that we’ve done our part. We look at the players out there and we feel they’ve done their part. ... They’ve done their part to come into spring training and put that (loss) behind us and not forget what that feeling’s like to lose that type of game, and I think it’s only going to make us stronger.”

The session, moderated by Nats radio voice Charlie Slowes, touched on a variety of other topics.

* At the top of Rizzo’s offseason shopping list was the acquisition of a center fielder, a wish that led to the trade that brought Denard Span from the Twins, pushing Bryce Harper to an outfield corner.

“My No. 1 priority was to get Harper out of center field,” Rizzo said. “He played terrific center field at 19 years old. He’s 6-3 and about 215 lbs., and still growing. We felt that the wear and tear on this guy’s body down the road was going to be such that if I could get him out of center field, it would be to the betterment of him long-term and to the betterment of out ballclub.”

* While the Nationals lost left-handers Sean Burnett and Michael Gonzalez out of their bullpen, Rizzo isn’t concerned with a lack of lefties in relief. The Nats have Zach Duke as a long man and Rizzo feels comfortable with right-handers Tyler Clippard, Ryan Mattheus and Drew Storen setting up newly signed closer Rafael Soriano because they’re as effective against left-handed hitters as they are versus right-handed swingers. Plus, they fit into manager Davey Johnson’s preference of relievers working a full inning rather than playing match-ups.

“Davey’s not a real match-up left-on-left type of guy,” Rizzo said. “He likes his pitchers to pitch a full inning. When you’ve got three guys like (Clippard, Storen and Soriano) at the back end of the bullpen, it shortens the game and it allows Davey a lot of flexibility. We’ve got three right-handed pitchers that get lefties out as good as any lefty on the market. I’d rather have an outstanding right-handed pitcher pitching against a good left-handed hitter than have a mediocre lefty, just because he is a lefty, pitching against him.”

* Lerner isn’t worried about the fact that the Nationals. coming off a 98-win season, are the team being chased in the National League East. In fact, he’s becoming more and more comfortable with the role of the hunted.

“I don’t mind the target on our backs,” he said. “It feels pretty good. I hope we have that feeling every year. A lot of people didn’t expect the last year, 98 wins. I honestly didn’t expect it myself. I figured we could make a run at the wild card, we had a solid team and could improve by ... five, seven, eight games. Never thought in a million years (about) 98 wins.”

* The signing of free agent Soriano to a two-year, $28 millon deal last week was a case of a premier closer falling to the Nationals and ownership being willing to pony up the dollars to make the Nationals bullpen, already a strength, even better.

“Through some shrewd discussions and negotiations, we got a player in a situation and structure that really worked for us and we pulled the trigger,” Rizzo said. “It was a real team-orientated signing, from ownership to the front office and it was really the (Lerner) family that did most of the heavy lifting on this one.”

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