When the Washington Nationals take the field to start their eighth season this month, fans and team management hope to see a whole new Natitude.
That’s right – Natitude. The Nationals launch their 2012 season under the loftiest expectations yet, reflected in the team’s aggressive new marketing slogan: Natitude! The slogan captures the essence of the scrappy Nationals’ ascendancy to respectability – and hopefully more – in Major League Baseball.
Andrew Feffer, the Nationals’ Chief Operating Officer, explains the thinking behind the new slogan. “Natitude starts with and is defined by the players,” Feffer says. “The Nationals are a young team that plays with an edge and attitude, and now with the talent, skills and commitment to back it up. That’s Natitude!”
Of course, it’s Feffer’s job to talk up his team. But some exciting off-season acquisitions, coupled with the return of flame-throwing pitcher Stephen Strasburg and the buzz surrounding 19-year-old slugger Bryce Harper, lends credence to Feffer’s confidence.
Strasburg is fully recovered from Tommy John surgery after suffering a ligament tear in his right elbow during the 2010 season. The right-handed cornerstone of the franchise is slated to pitch the season opener against the Cincinnati Reds on April 5th. S
trasburg hopes to pick up where he left off last season, when he pitched six shut-out innings and struck out 10 batters in a 3-1 victory over the Marlins in the team’s final game.
Harper – whose gritty, hard-charging playing style personifies Natitude! – is playing AAA ball in Syracuse but chances are goo
d he’ll join the team by mid-summer. Meanwhile, just about everyone associated with the club, including players, management, and even cynical local sportswriters, expect improvement on the team’s 80-81, third-place finish in the National League’s east division last year.
During the Nats’ spring training in Viera, Fla., On Tap interviewed three of the club’s most promising players – pitchers Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez, as well as outfielder Michael Morse. Each of the three major leaguers sounded not only enthusiastic about the team’s prospects, but were chomping at the bit to hit the diamond back at their sparkling ballpark in southeast DC.
“I think everyone’s upbeat and excited for the season,” Zimmermann told On Tap. “We have a lot of new guys coming in who ar
e going to help the team. It’s a different atmosphere than it was in years’ past.”
Zimmermann said Major League Baseball’s decision to add an extra wild-card team in each league for the 2012 playoffs – and beyond – improves the Nationals’ chance of post-season play.
“It’s definitely a motivator,” he said. “Having the extra wildcard team is a big bonus this year and I think everyone is just pretty excited to get better this season and see what happens.”
Zimmermann said the Nationals’ starting rotation – featuring himself, Strasburg, Gonzalez, John Lannan and Edwin Jackson – promises to be “one of the best rotations in the league.”
“I’m excited to be a part of the group,” Zimmermann said. “It’s going to be a good year.”
Zimmermann tore his ulnar collateral ligament in the 2009 season and was able to get his game back after the same Tommy John surgery Strasburg had a year later.
“The arm feels great – it’s back to 100 percent,” Zimmermann proclaimed. “Last year it was hit or miss. One day it would feel good and the next day it would be bad. I guess that’s what happens after your first full season back…you just have to pitch through it. But it’s been great so far in spring training, and it feels strong. I’m just ready to get the season started.”
Zimmermann said his experience with the surgery enabled him to counsel Strasburg when he went through it last year.
“We talked a little bit when he was rehabbing,” Zimmermann said. “He’s a bulldog and he works extremely hard so he was able to get through it without having too many problems. Now he’s a year removed from it, so I think his problem is in the past.”
Zimmermann said he shares the enthusiasm surrounding Harper, who hit .326 in the minors last year. Team General Manager Mike Rizzo sent Harper to AAA Syracuse in March to allow the hot prospect to gain even more seasoning. Nats fans hope Harper shows enough stuff in New York to join the big league team after the All-Star break.
“He’s quite the kid,” Zimmermann said. “He can hit the ball and he’s pretty good in the field, as well. He’s still young – he’s 19. He’ll be down there for a little while and work on a few things and hopefully he’ll be up before we know it.”
Michael Morse, entering his fourth season with the Nationals, has earned a reputation as one of the most versatile players on the roster. A consistent slugger, Morse moved from left field to first base after Adam LaRoche’s season ended in injury last May.
In his first four games at first base, Morse hit three home runs with eight RBIs. He kept up the pace into July, earning himself consideration for a final spot on the All-Star team and a mention as part of Sports Illustrated’s “All-Underrated Team.”
Morse finished the 2011 season with a .303 average, 31 home runs, and 95 RBI’s – putting him in the top 10 in the National League in all three categories. Morse comes into 2012 dogged by a strained right latissimus muscle. But Rizzo expects the slugger to be
ready by Opening Day, or shortly thereafter. Morse told On Tap the lat strain isn’t a big deal and he’s healing quickly.
“It’s going to be fine,” he said.
He also said he’s okay returning to left field after playing first base last year. LaRoche, whose injury is rehabilitated, is expected to man first base again for the Nats this year.
“I got an opportunity when LaRoche got hurt,” Morse recalled. “I got a chance to play and I got a chance to relax and go out there every day and just shine and try to play my game. I got comfortable and that wasn’t something I could do before. It felt good.
“As far as left field, I want to be the best left fielder I can be – I’m really focusing on that,” he said. “I want to try to be the best left fielder in the league.”
And how does he do that?
“The biggest thing is just seeing a lot of balls off the bat – shagging a lot of balls during batting practice – and trying to see how every ball comes off of the bat,” he explained. “They all come off different so the more I can see and read and catch – and just practice – the better.”
orse shares his teammates’ enthusiasm for the upcoming season.
“I think we’re going in the right direction,” he said. “We have a lot of big, important pieces as a part of this team now. Last year was just a taste of what we can do and the talent we had already. But we went out and got some great bench guys that have a lot of veteran leadership. I think the team is really coming together and I think the next couple of years should be very exciting for baseball in Washington.”
A surprise addition to the National’s roster late last year was Gio Gonzalez, a 2011 All-Star for the Oakland Athletics. Gonzalez told On Tap he was surprised – but excited – by the trade.
“I didn’t think this was going to be the team coming after me,” he said. “There was heavy rumor of other teams coming after me. When they pulled the trigger, for some reason I felt real comfortable that this was an organization I wanted to be a part of. Then, when we ended up getting [pitcher] Edwin Jackson it put the cherry on top.”
Gonzalez heard exciting buzz about the Nationals prior to his trade, and it intrigued him. He even mentioned the W-word (World Series) in the On Tap interview.
“For some reason the Nationals was a team that all eyes were on, especially with Strasburg and Bryce Harper,” Gonzales said. “It seemed like, man, it would be nice to go over there and do some damage and try to help out and try to win a World Series for these guys. It feels like the starting five is meshing so well. Everything feels great right now.”
Gonzalez fondly recalled his trip to Washington to sign with the club in December. He attended a Washington Capitals game and was impressed with the city’s enthusiasm for sports, the Nationals in particular.
“The fans feel like this is a great organization,” Gonzales said. “When you get an organization and fans like this, it shows the kind of class you’re dealing with. They want to see some life and some competition, and if you give them that there’s no doubt they’ll come out and watch.”
The southpaw pitcher, who is already packing plenty of heat, should see his game improve in Washington as it is well-known that pitchers usually improve when switching from the American League to the National League because they no longer have to pitch to a designated hitter. Gonzalez shrugged off the change.
“I think it is going to play out the same,” he said “Either way you have to go and get that out. A pitcher studies all day long, they do their work. It doesn’t matter where you end up playing – National League or American League – you still have to go out there and throw strikes. My adjustment will be me trying to hit and running bases, but I think we’ve got great leadership; we’ve got guys who know what they’re doing.
“We’ve got a real good shot this year,” he added.
The good-natured Gonzalez even shrugged off his impressive spring training in Florida.
“I’ve been lucky,” he said with a laugh. “I think the sun’s been in some of the hitter’s eyes – that’s all it is.”
Gonzalez, who won at least 15 games in each of the Oakland A’s last two seasons, said he likes what he sees in the Nationals’ clubhouse. He said there is a healthy mix of fun and intensity, which breeds strong chemistry among the players.
“A lot of the guys are joking around having fun but when game time comes their eyes are on the prize,” Gonzales explained. “These guys go out and compete.”
The clubhouse, once described as a moribund, lifeless place in Washington, has become a hive of activity.
“There is no one…sitting in front of their locker when you go in this clubhouse,” he said. “Everyone is up and moving and working and training and trying to get better. We’re all on the same page and ready to go.”
Gonzalez laughed when asked about the team’s new Natitude! slogan.
“That’s pretty cool!” he said. “I think it literally has some meaning to it. It’s cool when you can have some attitude and some Nats in there – a little bit of Natitude!”
He also said Nationals fans are in for an exciting season and urged them to pack the ballpark.
“You guys are in for a treat this year and for years to come,” Gonzalez said. “Make sure you come out to the games and enjoy it. It’s going to be fun to watch and hopefully we sell out every game!”
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.washington.nationals.mlb.com