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Apr 03

3 Keys to success for the Nationals in 2017

Washington sports fans are a demanding lot.

We’re not satisfied with merely winning. We are disappointed if our teams don’t improve.

We’re not entitled like New Yorkers, who expect to contend for a championship every year. But neither do we feel cursed, like Cubs fans before their team broke its 107-year record of futility last October.

This is city where few living souls can remember its only World Series title, and folks have seen six presidential inaugurations since its last championship in any major sport.

Heading out of the ballpark after the Nationals lost Game 5 of the 2012 NL Division Series, a friend remarked to me, “I sure hope the Nats don’t turn into the Caps.”

Faint praise indeed for a team that had finished with the best record in baseball in its first winning season. Last October, we compared the hurt of the Game 5 loss to the Dodgers to NLDS losses in 2012 1nd 2014.

So yeah, even for fans who went 34 years without a major league team to call their own, a five-year stretch with three division championships and three NLDS exits still leaves us wanting.

What will it take this year for the Nats to not only achieve back-to-back postseason appearances for the first time, but to finally play in a National League Championship Series? So many things can happen over the course of a six-month, 162-game season, but here are three keys to success for the Nats this season.

  1. Stay healthy. This can apply to any team, but consider how many crucial injuries befell the Nats even as they won 95 games took the Dodgers to the last out of the NLDS. Stephen Strasburg and Wilson Ramos suffered season-ending injuries in September. Daniel Murphy was hobbled for much of the second half, and still came within one swing of the NL batting title. Bryce Harper never acknowledged an injury, but something was not right after June, when his production tailed off significantly. Even in Game 5 of the NLDS, reliever Shawn Kelley lasted just three pitches before leaving with numbness in his fingers. Having any one of those players at 100 percent might have made a difference.
  2. Bank on the bullpen. Starting pitching has been the Nats’ strong suit for the past five seasons, and it should be again this year. They’ve had fairly strong bullpens in that stretch, but this year’s relief corps has the potential to be the strongest and deepest in baseball. Newly anointed closer Blake Treinen is coming off an almost-perfect spring: two hits, two walks and no runs allowed in 5 2-3 innings. Lefties Enny Romero and Oliver Perez held batters to .073 and .111 averages, respectively. Kelley seemed back to his old form as a setup man, and Koda Glover was in the running to be the team’s closer all spring. Newcomer Joe Blanton has become one of the game’s best long men, allowing just 55 hits in 80 innings for the Dodgers last season, and Sammy Solis has shown a penchant for getting big outs in his two seasons in Washington.
  3. Turn to Turner. Rookie Trea Turner gave the Nats a jolt of energy in the second half of last season, when he hit .342/.370/.567, and was 33-for-39 on stolen-base attempts. He showed surprising pop, with 13 home runs in only 307 at-bats. He also hit .318 with a pair of steals and five runs in the NLDS. Even so, he was shoehorned into center field to get his bat in the lineup. Now he’s back to his natural shortstop position. The Nats haven’t had a such a sparkplug at the top of the lineup for a full season since Alfonso Soriano’s 40-40 campaign in 2006. Turner’s production over a full season will have a big impact on the Nats’ chances to get back to the postseason and advance.