ONE DAY in spring training in 1986 the Cardinals entered their clubhouse at Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg to find new T-shirts at their lockers: NEW YORK METS—1986 NL EAST CHAMPIONS. The Cardinals shared Al Lang with the Mets, and someone in the New York camp was having a little fun with the team's cotenants. The Cards, the defending National League champs, were furious. St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog launched into an expletive-filled diatribe, the most printable and salient part being, "They act like they've already won it."
The Mets, coming off a 98-win season, were very good—and they knew it. "We don't want to just win," their manager, Davey Johnson, said then. "We want to dominate." And New York did, winning 108 games before beating the Red Sox in the World Series.
Twenty-seven years later, Johnson again is the manager of a club that won 98 games the previous season and is very good—and knows it, even if it hasn't made any silk-screened statements. Like the '86 Mets, the 2013 Nationals are the best team on paper at the start of the season. And like that championship team, Washington has young power pitching, a deep bullpen, a blend of speed and power, and an unmistakable swagger. Even the teams' signature stars run on parallel tracks: In the roles of 21-year-old ace Dwight Gooden and 24-year-old former Rookie of the Year outfielder Darryl Strawberry, Johnson has 24-year-old ace Stephen Strasburg and 20-year-old reigning Rookie of the Year outfielder Bryce Harper.
But the Nats shouldn't break out their Members Only jackets just yet; the road from Opening Day to the championship is far more hazardous than it was in 1986. A team has to navigate three or possibly four rounds of postseason play to win the title, not just two. Last year, for instance, the Nats led the majors in victories but fell through a trapdoor in the fifth and final game of the Division Series: After holding a two-run lead with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, they lost to St. Louis.
In addition to the increased degree of difficulty in the October format, the playing field is much more level these days. So many clubs have a real shot at winning the World Series—at least 15 this year—that Johnson's 1986 vision of mastery hardly seems possible today. From 1975 to '86, six of the 12 World Series winners won 100 games during the regular season. Since the '86 Mets, however, there have been only two "super" teams that won 100 games and the Series (the Yankees of 1998 and 2009).
If the Nationals do prevail, it will be because of their young pitching, the single greatest currency in today's game. The new era of pitching supremacy recalls the 1980s, only with more strikeouts, fewer walks and greater velocity. Young arms are especially important because they tend to stay healthier and maintain better strikeout rates, key factors in 21st-century baseball.
In 2012 the Nationals had the fewest starts by pitchers age 30 or older (five). They are bound to have a few more outings from thirtysomethings this year, with the durable Dan Haren, 32, taking the rotation spot of Edwin Jackson, 28, in a swap of free agents. But the rest of the rotation remains intact and full of youthful power. Strasburg—who was shut down as a precautionary measure after 28 starts last year, his first full season following Tommy John surgery—should be good for about 200 innings. He'll be followed by lefthander Gio Gonzalez, 27, who won 21 games last year; righthander Jordan Zimmermann, 26, who was seventh in the league with a 2.94 ERA; and lefthander Ross Detwiler, 27, a 10-game winner. That rotation is another echo of the '86 Mets, who started Gooden, 21; Ron Darling, 25; Bob Ojeda, 28; Sid Fernandez, 23; and Rick Aguilera, 24.
To close games, Johnson, who used Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco in 1986, again has multiple options. Tyler Clippard, who had 32 saves in 2012, and Drew Storen, the '11 closer who returned from elbow surgery in July—and blew Game 5 of the Division Series—are both back. But make no mistake: Washington made free agent Rafael Soriano the most expensive relief pitcher in the game (two years, $28 million) to make sure that Game 5 debacle doesn't happen again. Indeed, the signing of Soriano in January was such a surprise, and such a strong statement, that you might think of it as the Nats' version of passing out championship T-shirts in camp.
Ted Lerner, 87 years old and one of the richest men in baseball, has owned the Nationals since 2006. The franchise, which began in Montreal as the Expos in 1969, is one of only two current clubs never to have played in the World Series. (The Mariners are the other.) The District of Columbia has not hosted a World Series since '33, when the Senators lost to the New York Giants, and has not been home to a Series champion since Walter Johnson and the Senators beat the Giants in Game 7 in '24.
All of which is to say that patience has about expired in Washington. Dropping $14 million a year on a closer in mid-January was the Nationals' salvo to the other 29 teams: We are ready to win now. In two years the club has increased its payroll by 65%, from $68 million in 2010 to $112 million this year.