Nationals feel they can contend now

Associated Press  |  Last updated March 17, 2012
(Eds: Updates throughout. With AP Photos.) By ROB MAADDI AP Sports Writer Gio Gonzalez heard the rumors that the Philadelphia Phillies were interested before the Washington Nationals traded for him. He's just fine with that. Really. ''I'm happy here,'' Gonzalez said after a spring outing against the New York Yankees. These aren't the same old Nationals, who are used to being the doormats of the NL East. They haven't had a winning season since they were the Montreal Expos, and have finished last five times during their seven years in Washington. But the Nationals are optimistic they can make a move in a division that might be even tougher now than recent years. ''We want to be in the playoffs,'' closer Drew Storen said. ''We're not saying we just want to be .500. We want to be playing in October and we want to win it.'' The Phillies have owned the East, winning five straight division titles. They still have a staff full of aces, but injuries to key offensive players - Ryan Howard and Chase Utley - and age are a factor. The Phillies still are the favorites, but other teams have narrowed the gap. The Miami Marlins improved with the offseason additions of Jose Reyes, Heath Bell, Mark Buehrle and Carlos Zambrano. The Atlanta Braves should be better after leading the wild-card race most of last year until a late-September collapse. Then there's the Nationals. They started showing signs of going for it when they signed outfielder Jayson Werth away from the Phillies before last season. They even pursued Prince Fielder during the offseason. Werth struggled trying to live up to his $126 million contract. Still, he's one of the cornerstones on an offense that includes Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Morse, Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa. Bryce Harper might not be too far away from joining them, too. Harper, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft, came to camp with a chance to win the starting job in right field. The 19-year-old missed a week with a strained left calf, and moved to center field when he returned. He'll likely start the season in the minors, but could be up at some point. The Nationals finished strong last season, going 80-81. It was their highest win total since they went 81-81 in their first year in Washington in 2005. ''It's a new year. Whatever happened last year, you focus on the new year,'' outfielder Roger Bernadina said. ''The front office did a great job getting new pitchers in here. That builds confidence in the clubhouse. Guys in the offseason did things to get better.'' Getting Gonzalez in a deal with Oakland bolstered the starting rotation. The 26-year-old lefty fits nicely between right-handers Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmerman. He was 16-12 with a 3.12 ERA last year. The Nationals also added veteran Edwin Jackson to the rotation. Jackson earned a World Series ring with St. Louis, beating the Phillies in Game 4 of the NL division series along the way. Washington signed former Phillies closer Brad Lidge to add bullpen depth behind Storen and All-Star Tyler Clippard. ''We're right up there with any rotation,'' Espinosa said. ''With the East being a tough division, we have to have that kind of pitching. We have confidence in every single pitcher and know that they can keep it a low-scoring game, which should give us a chance to win a lot of games.'' Gonzalez isn't that boastful. ''As long as we stay healthy and stay focused and have the drive, we want to be up there, we want to be with the best and obviously Philadelphia has been holding that title for a while,'' Gonzalez said. ''But we want to go out there and do our best and compete with them. We're trying to play it one step at a time and not think that far ahead. We have a lot of work to do.'' Strasburg is the key to the rotation. The kid with the 100 mph fastball was a national phenomenon before elbow surgery. He returned to make five starts down the stretch last year, and is expected to be the ace of a promising staff. ''Strasburg's got a chance to be some kind of big pitcher,'' Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. ''He has a chance to be the best pitcher in baseball.'' That's high praise from a manager who has Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels on his staff. Strasburg has a 7.45 ERA in three appearances this spring, but he's just working on his command. His arm feels strong and he's firing those fastballs. Atlanta's Chipper Jones was impressed with Strasburg's stuff after facing him in an exhibition game last week. ''I saw a 93 mph changeup. It was sick!'' Jones said. Maybe they'll be talking like that about the rest of the Nats this year.
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