It may finally be the year for one of the most futile franchises in baseball. And I’m not talking about the Cubs (that one’s hopeless).

Although I may be the only fan in the Midwest who cares, the Washington Nationals are off to a surprisingly strong start in their first year as legitimate playoff contenders. Ace Stephen Strasburg’s arm, along with a surprising pop off the bat of first baseman Adam LaRoche, may be precisely the recipe for the Nationals’ first playoff appearance since arriving in the nation’s capital.

While most Wisconsinites are still recovering from that 8-0 beat down by the Cubs yesterday, the Nats are that team you can’t help but root for. Seven fruitless, often disheartening seasons in Washington have left the Nationals with a reputation as the National League East’s bottom-feeder. They’re one of the league’s perennial losers, a la the Pittsburgh Pirates, Oakland Raiders or New York Islanders.

Despite headline-grabbing signees (Jayson Werth) and promising young stars (Ryan Zimmerman), even at their best moments the Nationals have never reached fruition. Certain players haven’t developed as expected, never transforming into the powerful hitters scouts envisioned. Others have been plagued by injuries. But they have both produced the same result – disappointment.

Though most are afraid to select Strasburg and co. as anything more than an outside playoff contender, Washington has a realistic chance at winning one of the league’s most competitive divisions. It’s a rather bold prediction for a franchise that’s finished dead last in its division five of the last eight seasons.

The Curly ‘W’ has never won more than 81 games since arriving at RFK Stadium in 2005 and has yet to eclipse the .500 mark. The Nationals also managed to lead the MLB in losses for back-to-back seasons in 2008 and 2009 and slipping over the century mark for two straight seasons. It was a rather unremarkable run for a team that left its Montreal roots in hopes of a bigger fan base and an attractive market with one major void: a professional baseball team. But as it turns out, MLB’s return to the District of Columbia never turned into the dream that left Washington baseball fans drooling.

The closest the rechristened Washington Senators came to success was in 2005, when the Nationals hit the All-Star Break leading the NL East. With the legendary Frank Robinson heading the dugout, it was a great storyline, but one that came to a premature close. That season, too, ended in disappointment with an 81-81 record and a last-place spot in the division.

But with a combination of productive hitting and one of the division’s top pitching rotations, the stars finally appear to be aligning for Washington. So just how does everything shape up for Davey Johnson, now in his first full season as the Nationals’ manager?

In what has increasingly become a pitcher-friendly league over the past few seasons, it all starts with pitching. The heart and soul of the starting rotation is Strasburg, the man who took the league by storm as a rookie in 2010 with fastballs in the triple digits and a curveball that leaves MLB’s most feared sluggers baffled. In his 13 innings of work in 2012, the top overall pick of the 2009 MLB Draft appears to be back in top form.

Strasburg has garnered 14 strikeouts through his first two starts and, assuming the arm can hold up, looks to be the Nationals’ long-time ace. He is the rare star who actually lives up to the hype, who can single-handedly change the fate of his squad whenever he takes the mound. But he’s not the only young, talented hurler whose career has been slowed by arm injuries.

Jordan Zimmermann, a former standout for the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point baseball team, is another Tommy John surgery vet who saw the closest thing to a full season of his career in 2011. He had a 3.18 ERA last season in 26 appearances and gave up just one earned run in seven innings of work in his only start of the new season. Rounding out the pitching staff are off-season additions Gio Gonzalez (formerly of the Oakland A’s) and Edwin Jackson (St. Louis Cardinal) and Ross Detwiler.

But the most pressing questions, and reasonably so, rest on Washington’s game with the bat in its hands.

LaRoche has been the early offensive leader for the Nationals with two home runs and an impressive eight runs batted in through the year’s first seven games. Aiding LaRoche in the batter’s box is the always reliable and under-credited third baseman in Zimmerman, a career .288 hitter who puts up at least 20 home runs.

If Werth can manage a second-year performance where he shows hints at why the Nationals handed him a 7-year, $126 million contract, Johnson may have just the firepower he needs to sustain a playoff run.

And then there’s Bryce Harper. As one of the most highly-touted hitting prospects in years, the 19-year-old phenom has put up stellar numbers in the minor leagues. With almost unlimited upside and a swing that Ken Griffey Jr. would admire, Harper should be gracing the outfield at Nationals Park before the All-Star Break.

Though he certainly has plenty to learn in the big leagues and may not be the instant star fans are looking for, Harper still has a strong enough game to help the Nationals’ case for a playoff spot.

So maybe, just maybe, this is the year the Nationals finally rid themselves of that tarnished, hopeless image that bespeaks their name. Good times are ahead in the not-too-distant future, and it’s worth noting that eight of the squad’s first 10 games were played away from the nation’s capital.

After suffering through three managers and a list of stars whose careers never reached their anticipated peaks, the 2012 edition of the Washington Nationals appears to have the talent and experience to contend for a division title.

For the first time in its short history, there is hope for one of the most underachieving teams in professional baseball.

Ian is a junior majoring in journalism. Do you agree that the Nationals have a realistic shot at making the playoffs? Wondering why I care about the Nationals when the Brewers are facing their own struggles? Send him an email at [email protected]

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