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Nationals raise expectations

Strasburg, Harper, Johnson lead charge into Wrigley

Phil Rogers

On Baseball

8:48 PM CDT, April 4, 2012

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Time must fly if you're Mike Rizzo.

Less than three years ago, Rizzo was an interim general manager of the Washington Nationals, charged with getting Scott Boras to sign off on a deal for Stephen Strasburg, the San Diego State ace billed as a once-a-decade pitcher. A year later, now having been given the title of GM, Rizzo was dancing with Boras again, this time over Bryce Harper, a once-a-generation hitter and all-around talent.

In both cases, mission accomplished. But now comes the really hard part.

The 51-year-old Holy Cross High and St. Xavier University grad is overseeing the push to turn the newly relevant Nationals into a serious contender. Davey Johnson, their manager, believes that starts on Thursday at Wrigley Field, with Strasburg on the mound fully healed from Tommy John surgery.

Johnson, who guided the New York Mets to a championship 26 years ago, wouldn't have accepted the offer to become a permanent replacement for Jim Riggleman if he didn't believe he could win. The addition of a second wild-card spot helps the Nationals like everyone else, but Johnson believes the team that has been built around third baseman Ryan Zimmerman is strong enough to replace the Philadelphia Phillies as the team to beat in the National League East.

Given the Phillies' 102 wins a year ago, behind baseball's deepest starting rotation, that says a lot.

In an interview with MLB.com at the end of spring training, Johnson was asked if the Nationals could overtake the Phillies this year.

"No question in my mind,'' Johnson said. "I know one thing: Ted Lerner, the owner, is not a dreamer and I'm not dreaming. The reality is, we should be able to compete toe-to-toe if we do what we are capable of doing. We can beat them. We showed it in matchups late last season. But it's a wonderful opportunity to show yourself and the world that we are pretty good. That's the opportunity that everyone in that room should want.''

With Riggleman resigning in June after trying unsuccessfully to leverage a 38-37 start into a contract extension, the Nationals made a major step forward with an 80-win season in 2011. That was a gain of 10 wins over the year before and 21 wins over the year before that.

Rizzo traded for left-hander Gio Gonzalez in the offseason, building a rotation with enough depth that lefty John Lannan, who was the No. 2 starter a year ago, was optioned to Triple-A. The signing of veteran Edwin Jackson, last seen helping the Cardinals to the World Series, nicely illustrated how seriously Lerner is taking his team.

Some had felt that the Nationals would import Prince Fielder to add thump to the lineup. But instead Rizzo signed Zimmerman to a $100-million extension that should keep him and Harper — the prodigy who opens the season in Triple-A but is expected to be the center fielder soon — hitting back-to-back through 2018, at least.

Everything started with Strasburg, who can't wait for his next pitch. He'll have his own rooting section at Wrigley, filled with family and friends happy to see him back throwing in the high-90s again.

"It's nice to be breaking with the club and it's going to be fun," Strasburg told MLB.com. "It's good for my family to come out and see me pitch again. The last time they came and saw me was for my debut. So it has been a long time and I'm excited for the experience. It's something that doesn't happen to everybody. Obviously, it starts opening day in Wrigley. It's going to be fun, no matter what."

progers@tribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribRogers