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Nats shore up soft spots in effort to reach goals

Club fortifies bench, focuses on fundamentals after missing playoffs in 2013

Nats shore up soft spots in effort to reach goals play video for Nats shore up soft spots in effort to reach goals

VIERA, Fla. -- Before the 2013 season started, then-manager Davey Johnson made a bold prediction about the Nationals: "World Series or bust." The Nats did not make the World Series -- or the playoffs -- finishing second behind the Braves in the National League East.

This year, new manager Matt Williams declined to follow in Johnson's footsteps as far as making a bold prediction. The only thing he would say was that the Nationals would play hard and leave it on the field every night.

"Predictions are hard," Williams said. "Wins and losses are out of your control, but if I could predict, I would say we will approach the game correctly. We will make some mistakes, but they will be aggressive mistakes. We will challenge the other team and put pressure on them. If we could do that, we have a chance. You can never predict a record or any of that, because you don't know, but if we approach it correctly, we have a chance."

Many baseball experts predicted the Nats would contend for the World Series in 2013, but Washington didn't live up to those expectations.

The offense didn't come around until the second half of the season. And the team struggled on defense and in holding runners, as the Nationals were one of the worst in the league in those departments. Williams has made it a point this spring to focus on those fundamentals. The manager admitted that he lost sleep when things went wrong on the field this spring.

"Offensively, if we can be consistent and do what we are capable of doing, we'll be fine," center fielder Denard Span said. "I also think defensively, if we catch the ball and make the plays we are supposed to make, don't make our pitchers throw extra pitches and give opposing teams extra outs, then we'll be fine."

Shortstop Ian Desmond said Washington has to do the little things right, and Williams has done a good job of preaching that all spring.

"We have to move the runners over if we have to, getting the bunt down and taking the extra base," Desmond said. "It's the little things, the small things that are equally important."

Williams showed his emotions when his team couldn't do the little things right. On March 16, for example, the Nats allowed six stolen bases in a 2-1 loss to the Tigers. With the score tied at 1, left-hander Mike Gonzalez allowed three of those six stolen bases and allowed the winning run to score in the eighth inning.

"[Gonzalez] has to hold baserunners a little bit better than that," Williams said at the time. "We are preaching in Spring Training that we need to do a better job of holding those guys. [Gonzalez] has been around the block a time or two and he understands that he is fairly slow to the plate. He needs to vary his times, his looks and throw over and things like that. Today, [the Tigers] took advantage of him."

Health is also another factor for the Nationals. As of now, no one will open the season on the disabled list. Last year, however, injuries crippled the Nats. Because of surgery after the 2012 season, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman had a tough time throwing the baseball to first base until the final month of last season. Catcher Wilson Ramos missed half the season because of hamstring issues.

But the biggest blow was to outfielder Bryce Harper, who played in only 118 games after crashing into a wall at Dodger Stadium last May. Harper ended up having offseason surgery to repair his left knee.

Desmond said staying healthy is extremely important, but he pointed out that if there is an injury this year, the Nationals will not lose a beat. For example, if one of the relievers goes down, the club can call up someone like Blake Treinen, who impressed the team during Spring Training.

The bench has improved dramatically compared to last year. The Nats added power by signing free-agent outfielder Nate McLouth. They also acquired catcher Jose Lobaton and infielder Kevin Frandsen, an upgrade from what they had last year.

"We learned this Spring Training -- and maybe we didn't consider it last year -- is our depth is unbelievable," Desmond said. "We saw some of the young guys that came into camp this year that are knocking on the door and they are ready.

"I hate to talk about 2012, but we had players ready. They came up, they performed. They never missed a beat. They acted and carried themselves like big leaguers. We have guys that are waiting in the wings to come up if there is an injury or potential trade or however it may go. There are guys waiting."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also can be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

{"event":["opening_day" ] }
{"event":["opening_day" ] }