From our season preview of the Washington Nationals earlier today…
Can the Nationals handle the attention and pressure that comes with being a World Series favorite?
The Nationals were a popular sleeper pick in 2012 and they certainly made everyone who put their faith in them look good when they advanced to within one out of the World Series. This year though, expectations have most definitely changed. No longer the trendy dark horse, the Nats are full-blown World Series favorites. Instead of sneaking up on people like they did last season, Washington is going to have a big, fat target on their back. Is that the kind of pressure that this talented but young team is ready to handle?
The thing that makes this Nationals team seem like a potential dynasty in the making is just how young they are. Only five of their projected members of the Opening Day roster are over the age of 30 (Werth, LaRoche, Haren, Soriano and Tracy) while seven players are 25 or younger, including franchise cornerstones Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. But it is this bounty of youth that might also be their undoing.
We've seen many a team fold under the pressure of being the team that spent big in the off-season and entered the year as a top contender. Just last year the Angels were such a team and they wound up being a disappointment, and that was a roster full of veterans and leaders who are supposedly more than capable of braving that kind of scrutiny. How is a youthful team like the Nationals going to hold up under a similar spotlight?
Make no mistake, all eyes will be on the nation's capital this year. Not only are the Nats a World Series favorite, but they have several ongoing storylines that figure to be covered to death by the local and national media. There is the obvious ugliness surrounding Gio Gonzalez and his questionable invovlement in the Biogenesis scandal. The handling of Stephen Strasburg and his workload is a source of neverending column fodder. Bryce Harper's tantalizing talent and penchant for memorable quotes will always make him the center of attention.
But more than anything, the Nationals will have to deal with the stigma of having choked. Getting as close to the playing for the pennanst as they did last season has to be considered a major victory for the franchise, but it doesn't change the fact that they choked and choked hard in Game 5 of the NLDS. The series was there for the taking and they just couldn't close it out. That kind of monumental and memorable failure has a way of permeating the team's collective psyche, even if the fault lies primarily with one particular player, Drew Storen in this case.
Perhaps this is where Washington's youth will actually pay off simply because some of the players are too young and too brash to know any better. Or maybe their youngsters had their confidence in big situations permanently scarred by Storen's meltdown. All the pressure to avoid a similar choke job combined with all the increased media scrutiny could be the lone factor that stands in the way of this Washington roster that has no obvious holes.