Managing expectations: Davey Johnson keeps Nationals even-keeled

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Sports,MLB,Nationals,Brian McNally

Davey Johnson keeps the Nationals even-keeled as they enter the season World Series favorites

The pressure is impossible to escape now. The Nationals have been lauded far and wide as the 2013 season gets underway on Monday, and even their own manager has said this is a World Series-or-bust season.

Davey Johnson has never been one to shy away from high expectations. In his final season in the game before retirement, he isn't about to let his players get away with that, either. Washington returns almost every key player from a team that won 98 games and a National League East title and reached the playoffs. It added a respected center fielder, a veteran starting pitcher and an experienced closer for good measure.

So it makes sense that seven experts tabbed by Sports Illustrated chose the Nats to win the NL East, four have them as World Series champions and another one picked them to win the pennant. A Washington baseball team last won a World Series in 1924. If this year's club wants to bring the city a title, it will do so with a giant bull's-eye on its back.

- Brian McNally

Division will be no cakewalk
The National League East is divided into three tiers this season. The Nationals are expected to fight with the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies for the division title. The New York Mets, especially after the likely season-ending loss of pitcher Johan Santana to another shoulder injury on Thursday, will struggle to stay competitive. And the perennially rebuilding Florida Marlins have no chance to compete after exploding an expensive roster that didn't produce results in its first season in a new ballpark.
And while the Braves added the Upton brothers -- Justin by trade and B.J. by free agency -- center fielder Michael Bourn signed with Cleveland and star third baseman Chipper Jones retired. The lineup looks good on paper, but is it better than last year's?
The Phillies are hoping stars Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins can fight off the effects of aging. They will need the starting rotation, led by Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and a struggling Roy Halladay, to lead the way.

"I'm excited to get this year started and I know everyone in this room feels the same way," Johnson said Friday before the Nats played the New York Yankees at Nationals Park in their final exhibition game. "As far as the pressure? Pressure is all self-imposed. There's a challenge every day to go out there and prove how good you are. ... A series of battles that you've got to win to get to the end."

That confidence can rub opponents the wrong way. It always has for Johnson's rivals wherever he is managing. He led the 1986 New York Mets -- as star-studded and combative a group as ever played the game -- to a championship. He still believes his 1997 Baltimore Orioles, personified by star shortstop Cal Ripken and ace pitcher Mike Mussina, should have as well.

Johnson said multiple times last season that if Washington didn't win its division, he should be fired. Putting himself on the line that way takes at least some of the pressure off his players. And that, really, is the whole point. His job is to let a team's natural talent shine through. It's worked time and again.

"It's nice to have somebody who has been around for as long as [Johnson] has and understands the game and what it takes to get through a big league season," relief pitcher Tyler Clippard said. "But at the same time, he's very relaxed in the way he goes about it and that makes us relaxed. So we're not putting too much pressure on ourselves. He's not putting too much pressure on us. He's letting us go out there and play and that's all we can ask for."

Nats players often scoffed about their lack of experience heading into the playoffs last season. But after going through it in a grueling five-game series against the battle-tested St. Louis Cardinals, some now concede it matters more than they thought. Have those lessons carried over to 2013?

"Only time will tell. We're in uncharted waters right now," pitcher Stephen Strasburg said. "We've got a great group of guys and we're all pulling for each other so we've just got to stick together and realize that, just like last year, there's going to be some ups and downs. We've got to weather the storm."

bmcnally@washingtonexaminer.com

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Brian McNally

Staff writer - sports
The Washington Examiner