In the final two weeks of the 2007 season, the Washington Nationals dictated the exciting division race between the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies.
By defeating the Mets in five of their final six meetings and edging the Phillies twice in the final week of the season, the Nationals set the stage for a potential one-game playoff between those two franchises to determine the division champion.
However, Tom Glavine got tattooed by the "fodder franchise of the NL East," the Florida Marlins in the final game of the season. That loss gave the Phillies the division and the Mets a historic late-season collapse.
The collapse of the Mets placed their manager, Willie Randolph, on job security and mercifully provided Phillies' embattled manager, Charlie Manuel, a much-needed reprieve.
But, make no mistake about it, both Randolph and Manuel are under the microscope this season.
For Randolph, he is under extreme pressure to right the wrongs of the past two seasons: A disappointing exit in the NLCS by a weaker St. Louis Cardinal team in 2006, and an epic late-season collapse that rivaled the 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers in 2007.
For Manuel, he is under the scrutiny of characteristically overanxious Philadelphia sports fans, who are eager for a winner in the City of Brotherly Love. Philadelphia has not had a championship team in any sport since 1983, and despite winning the division last season, the Phillies' untimely exit in the Division Series by way of a three-game sweep by the wild card Colorado Rockies places Manuel under the firing gun of the organization.
Remember, this is the same Philadelphia fanbase that booed and jeered Mike Schmidt when he posted a disappointing performance in the 1983 World Series when the Phillies dropped a five-game series to the Baltimore Orioles. This was the same Schmidt that helped the Phillies earn their first and, thus far, only World Series title three years earlier.
In Philadelphia, sports fans judge their athletes on one and only one criterion: What have you done for me lately? For Manuel, the answer currently is nothing.
On the other hand, the Nationals come into 2008 with no scrutiny at all.
With a young, but now seasoned, pitching rotation, an intimidating bullpen anchored by one of the National League's best closers (Chad Cordero), and a batting lineup filled with clutch-hitting veterans such as Ryan Zimmerman, Dmitri Young, and Christian Guzman, the Nats are highly probable to take the National League East this year.
The new ballpark in downtown D.C. provides a contrast in outfield dimensions than did its ancient predecessor, RFK Stadium. The shorter porches in left and right field provide power hitters such as Zimmerman and Young to post career high home run numbers in 2008.
Zimmerman successfully cracked the 20-home run mark in each of the past two seasons, while the Nats called RFK home. Imagine the numbers Zimmerman will post at Nationals Park with an open-air stadium and reasonable outfield dimensions left field to right field!
Nick Johnson posted his career high in homers in 2006 when he blasted 23, most of them at RFK. Should Johnson receive regular playing time, imagine the numbers he will post at Nationals Park. This is a season for tremendous statistical opportunity for many in the Nationals' batting order.
Finally, it should be noted that with a new stadium comes new fervor.
In 2005, the entire country saw the kind of fervor the Nats provided the baseball-hungry fanbase of the Washington, DC area. That surge of support left the Nats in late June that season 19 games above .500 and four games up over the then-second place Philadelphia Phillies.
The fervor settled down over the course of the next two seasons; however, in 2008, that fervor will return with a new stadium. And, yet, in spite of the expected surge in fervor, the Nats are projected to finish at best third in the NL East behind the Mets and Phillies.
What these analysts fail to comprehend is that the pressures for high expectations for Randolph and Manuel will hinder the progress of the Mets and Phillies.
On the other hand, the laissez-faire managerial style of the charismatic Manny Acta and the upbeat clubhouse attitude of the Nationals with a revitalized D.C. fanbase will bring back memories of the summer of 2005.
Only this time, the Nats will hold on to first place!!!