Spring training brings high hopes for Nats fans

Ben Cowlishaw, assistant sports editor

Beat the drum and hold the phone, the sun came out today.

There’s no better symbol for a change of seasons like baseball spring training. Everyone’s team is in first place, everyone believes this is ‘our year.’ It’s a chance to see the game’s biggest stars play alongside the aces and sluggers of tomorrow.

A stiff wind blew straight out to right field earlier this Month at Space Coast Stadium in warm and friendly Florida. The sun shone brightly through a clear sky as it set behind the park as the Nationals took on the Astros in a Grapefruit League game.

The game moved quickly as the starters, McHugh for the Astros and Arroyo for the Nats, each threw three scoreless frames before being replaced.

For both of these teams, the stakes at spring training couldn’t be higher. A spring win-loss record doesn’t matter, but what these teams learn from their preseason play is invaluable. The Astros came out on top and happily brought home the W.

Last year the young and stacked Astros, behind Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, shocked the sports world and broke into their first postseason since losing over 100 games just two years earlier. After beating the Yankees in the Wild Card game, the Astros lost an AL Division Series matchup to the eventual World Series winning Kansas City Royals. The Astros are an incredibly young and incredibly deep team, with an impressive concentration of some of the game’s best fresh talent — and after being the most laughable losers for much of the last decade, the Astros set to be a perennial winner.

The Nationals couldn’t be in a more different place. Bryce Harper has established himself as one of the most feared hitters in baseball, and the team built around him has been the expected best-team-in-baseball for close to five years running. What do they have to show for it? A pair of division titles and a postseason win-loss record of 3-6. In true Washingtonian style, the Nats have consistently disappointed fans and failed to meet the expectations of the baseball world.

What do the Nats have going for them? They will play 2016 in one of the worst divisions in baseball. The Phillies and Braves could collectively lose over 180 games, and their only threat will be last year’s NL Champions, the Mets, with a catch — last year’s National League Championship Series MVP, second baseman Daniel Murphy, left Queens for Washington, potentially giving the Nats a new edge over New York. It showed, with the Nationals crushing the Mets 9-5 the day after their Astros loss.

Meanwhile, the Astros will play in one of the toughest divisions. The American League West has oscillated year after year from one of the worst divisions to one of the deadliest, and this season the pendulum has swung the division into its strongest position in years. Last year’s division winning Rangers greatly exceeded expectations and overcame a terrible start to re-establish themselves as the best in the West. The Angels, however — with Mike Trout and Albert Pujols — continue to lurk, hungry for a taste of October success that has evaded them for years.

There’s a lot to like about both teams. Unless they collectively fall in a sophomore slump, there’s no reason to think the Astros can’t improve on their exceptional season as the team gains more and more major league experience. The Nats have retooled, appear healthy and play in a division ripe to deliver wins. The Nationals and Astros won’t face each other in the regular season this year, but a ticket to October is theirs to lose. An Astros-Nationals World Series isn’t out of the ballpark.