Spring training storylines: Life as defending champs

We’ve reached the final countdown to spring training, so we’re counting down the most important storylines surrounding the Nationals this spring. We conclude today with the quest to repeat as World Series champions ...

Nationals pitchers and catchers report to West Palm Beach today. Just as they’ve done each of the last three springs. And just as they did the previous 12 springs in Viera.

Nothing special happens. Guys just show up at the complex, reunite with teammates, coaches and support staff, take their physicals and maybe play catch for a few minutes to loosen up their arms. It’s rather mundane stuff, to be honest.

And yet, this reporting day is unlike any other in club history. Never before have the Nationals reported as defending World Series champions.

And never before have they begun the long, slow march toward opening day facing this particular challenge: How do you motivate yourself to achieve the ultimate goal, when you just did finally achieve the ultimate goal only 105 days ago?

If winning a title is the hardest thing to do in professional sports, winning back-to-back titles feels near-impossible. No Major League Baseball franchise has done it since 2000, when the Yankees won their third straight World Series crown. And no National League franchise has done it since 1976, when the Reds repeated as champions.

Obviously, there’s a physical challenge to this. It takes quality performance through a six-month regular season, then elite performance through three (or four) grueling rounds of October ball to emerge victorious. But it also requires the mental toughness to deal with the ups and downs of a long season, then the highs and lows of pressure-packed postseason games when everything is magnified.

The 2020 Nationals have no way of knowing how they’ll handle the physical challenge. They do, however, feel good about their ability to overcome the mental hurdle of repeating as champions, given everything they experienced last year.

Hale-Scherzer-Look-From-Dugout-Blue-Sidebar.jpg“We have a bunch of our guys back,” ace Max Scherzer said last month. “The core of this team is still back. We can all look each other in the eyes and know, when it counts, we can all count on each other and we’re a bunch of winners.

“I think that’s just going to breed itself. We’re going to face a tremendous amount of challenges this year. But it’s going to be what it takes in the clubhouse to be able to respond to it, and that’s what we play the game for. It’s going to be a challenge, but we’re up for it.”

Only three members of the Nationals’ 25-man World Series roster are assured of playing elsewhere this season. Anthony Rendon, of course, signed a $245 million contract with the Angels. Gerardo Parra took “Baby Shark” to Japan. And Matt Adams recently signed a minor league deal with the Mets. (Second baseman Brian Dozier and reliever Fernando Rodney remain unsigned for now but expect to play somewhere this season.)

So the group that gathers today at FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches will be both veteran and familiar with one another. Clubhouse chemistry won’t be an issue.

And yet there are going to be new challenges this spring and beyond, challenges nobody in that room has faced before. There will be increased attention. There is the matter of physical well-being after an extra month of work and an abbreviated winter that included all kinds of enjoyable but probably unproductive celebration.

And then there’s that other team gathering in the other clubhouse across the large South Florida complex.

It would have been weird enough for the Nationals to share spring training facilities with the team they beat in the most recent World Series. But they’re sharing it with the team that has been embroiled in controversy and chaos all winter long, an Astros club that was found to have illegally used electronic means to steal opponents’ signs during its 2017 World Series run.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred suspended both general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch for one year, after which Houston owner Jim Crane fired both men. The players, who were granted immunity for their honest testimony during the league’s investigation, are left to (hopefully) apologize and now confront all the scrutiny that will come their way over the next six weeks in Florida and the subsequent six months around the country.

Oh, and did we mention the Astros’ choice to take over as manager and steer this wayward ship back into calm waters is none other than Dusty Baker, who returns to West Palm Beach two years after the Nationals let him go following back-to-back first-round playoff exits?

These current Nats may try to downplay all of this and insist they’re focused solely on preparing themselves for the season. But make no mistake, they’re going to be hearing about it a lot this spring. And the six head-to-head exhibition games with the Astros (including the Feb. 22 Grapefruit League opener) will force all interested parties to gather together on one field and deal with whatever happens.

So, yeah, this is a spring training unlike any other. The Nationals don’t have many questions to answer on the field. But their greater challenge before they pack up and head north in six weeks will be to figure out how to block out all that noise surrounding them and prepare themselves to - as their manager so memorably implored them to do last year - just go 1-0 every day until there are no more games to play.

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