Inside the Phillies: Nationals on the upswing as they try to challenge Phillies

Nationals manager Davey Johnson with Stephen Strasburg, who missed most of last season.
Nationals manager Davey Johnson with Stephen Strasburg, who missed most of last season. (JULIO CORTEZ / Associated Press)
Posted: February 26, 2012

VIERA, Fla. - Sick and tired of watching their ballpark overflow with Phillies fans, the Washington Nationals implemented a ticket plan earlier this month that ticked off a lot of people in the Philadelphia area.

The Nationals' idea was to limit sales to their own fans for an early-May three-game series between the teams in the nation's capital.

We'll have to wait and see how that idea works. Look for plenty of Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee jerseys in attendance at Nationals Park anyway.

The people in charge of baseball operations with the Nationals have a much better plan in motion for limiting the number of Phillies fans who invade their ballpark in the future.

It's called improvement.

By going 17-10 in September, the Nationals finished the 2011 season at 80-81. That meant they had improved by 11 games from the season before. They had also improved by 10 games from 2009 to 2010. Adam Kilgore, the Nationals beat writer for the Washington Post, figured out that the Nationals were only the eighth team since the start of division play in 1969 to have a double-digit victory improvement in consecutive seasons.

None of the previous seven teams continued an upward climb in the third season, but the Nationals believe they can end that trend. They also think their strong 2011 finish can carry over into a strong 2012 start, which could set up an exciting series with the Phillies in early May. One thing that could help the Nationals is a friendly early schedule. They play only one team in April that had a winning record last season.

"Yeah, I do to a point [think it can carry over]," said Jayson Werth, the former Phillies rightfielder who received $126 million to join the Nationals last season. "I think it always goes back to talent, and I think talent-wise we might have as much talent or more than anybody. It's young talent, it's unproven talent, but it's there."

It is young and it is there.

The Nationals had the first overall pick in 2009 and 2010 and came away with Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.

Strasburg, 23, returned from Tommy John surgery late last season and still looked like the most electrifying young pitcher in baseball. Harper, only 19 years old, is making a rapid climb through the minor leagues and will likely be in the Nationals' lineup at some point this season.

Washington's young talent goes well beyond the oft-hyped duo of Strasburg and Harper.

Catcher Wilson Ramos, 24, hit 15 home runs and finished fourth in the N.L. rookie of the year voting last season. Second baseman Danny Espinosa, 24, finished sixth in the rookie voting after hitting 21 home runs. Ryan Zimmerman, 27, is the best third baseman in the National League and already a seven-year veteran. At 29, first baseman Mike Morse hit .303 with 31 home runs and 95 RBIs in his first season as a starter last year.

In addition to Strasburg, the Nationals rotation already had 25-year-old Jordan Zimmermann, who posted a 3.18 ERA in 26 starts last season, and 27-year-old John Lannan, who had a career-low 3.70 ERA in a team-leading 33 starts.

Setup man Tyler Clippard, 27, had a 1.83 ERA and struck out 104 batters in 881/3 innings last season, while closer Drew Storen, 24, went 6-3 with 43 saves and a 2.75 ERA.

"I think last year we started to break through the surface a little bit," Ryan Zimmerman said. "It had been a tough three or four years and nobody likes to lose. Sure, some teams obviously weren't playing all their people [in September] . . . but you still have momentum and some confidence from that. And then we did some good stuff this offseason."

Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo made a deal with Oakland for former Phillies farmhand Gio Gonzalez and signed righthander Edwin Jackson to fill out what is now one of the stronger starting rotations in baseball. Gonzalez, 26, was traded by the Phillies along with Gavin Floyd to the Chicago White Sox in 2008 for Freddy Garcia and has come into his own the last two seasons, going 31-21 with a 3.17 ERA.

With all that young talent, you have to think at some point that the Nationals will be competing with the Phillies for supremacy in the National League East.

Can it happen in 2012?

"That's a tough question to answer," Werth said. "We're at two different stages. They're a proven veteran club and playoff proven, whereas we are young and talented. I think even last year we played them tough, and I think they were probably well aware of this team and who we are."

The Nats went 10-8 against the Phillies and were one of two National League teams with a winning record against them. The other was St. Louis. All the Nationals recognize that when they swept the Phillies in September at Citizens Bank Park that the home team was resting some regulars after clinching the division title.

Still, the optimism is flowing in the nation's capital.

"I don't think in the past that anybody projected this team into the playoffs, but I've heard people picking us to be in the playoffs this year," Werth said. "It's going to be fun. It's going to be nuts.

"This could end up being one of the great sports rivalries of our time. The Phillies-Mets rivalry was pretty good for a while, but the demographics of these two cities kind of makes sense for a rivalry, too. It makes for good rowdy baseball, which is the best atmosphere to play in."


Inside the Phillies: Young and Armed

The Nationals have some of the best young pitchers in baseball as well as the game's top minor-league prospect in outfielder Bryce Harper. Here's a look at some of their young pitching stars with 2011 statistics:

Player    Age   W-L   Saves   ERA    IP    H   BB/K

Stephen Strasburg    23    1-1     0    1.50     24.0     15    2/24

Jordan Zimmermann   25    8-11     0    3.18    161.1   154   31/124

Gio Gonzalez    26    16-1   20    3.12    202.0   175    91/197

Drew Storen    24    6-3    43    2.75     75.1     57    20/74

Tyler Clippard    27    3-0     0    1.83     88.1     48    26/104


Contact staff writer Bob Brookover at 215-854-2577 or

bbrookover@phillynews.com.

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