WASHINGTON (AP) — Pondering his Washington Nationals' third-place showing in the NL East — the club's top result since moving from Montreal — Ryan Zimmerman chuckled and said, "It's better than finishing last."
Then his smile gave way to a straight face.
"But that's not our goal," the third baseman said. "From there, you build and go on to next year."
Yes, Zimmerman and the Nationals are looking forward to 2012, fully convinced that serious improvement finally is on the horizon, thanks to a slew of young players who showed real promise this season and, just as importantly, a sense that the franchise really is ready to distance itself from its recent past.
"Ingrained attitudes, they die hard. We worked very, very hard in changing the mindset here and the culture in the clubhouse," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "We know we came from very much a losing type of attitude ... and we had to change that. I think we've made great steps in that progression."
This is, after all, a team that from 2005 to 2010 — its first six seasons in the nation's capital — finished last five times and fourth once.
It's also a club that lost more than 100 games in both 2008 and 2009. The No. 1 overall draft picks that resulted from all of those defeats turned into two significant reasons for hope: Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.
Strasburg looked good and healthy in his September comeback from Tommy John surgery, and Harper has started his climb through the minors.
Asked what his most pleasant surprise was in 2011, Rizzo said: "The maturation process of our young, core guys."
He's talking about players such as starting pitchers Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, closer Drew Storen, second baseman Danny Espinosa and catcher Wilson Ramos. Of that group, only Zimmermann is older than 24 — and he's all of 25.
Add them to more experienced, more established veterans Zimmerman and Jayson Werth, and the pieces are starting to assemble.
"We can get better; we still have a ways to go. But everyone is more optimistic. And we have good reason to be," Zimmerman said. "The young guys that we've been developing are finally starting to come up here and be able to perform at this level."
This season saw breakouts from potential building blocks such as Storen (43 saves) and Espinosa (21 homers), along with Michael Morse (.303 batting average, 31 homers and 95 RBIs — all team highs).
"There's been a lot of talk of, 'Hey, it's going to get better. It's going to get better.' And this year, it did get better," Storen said.
"Even if our record was the same as last year," he said, "the progress we've made in the clubhouse and the way that we play would be significant."
As the season wound down, and the Nationals made a run at their first above-.500 record in Washington before finishing 80-81 (there was one rainout that wasn't made up) — an 11-victory improvement from a year ago — Rizzo felt emboldened to proclaim: "I think we're an outfield bat away and a starting pitcher away from really being a contender in the division."
That's saying a lot when they have teams such as the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves to deal with.
As the offseason begins, there are some lingering issues, of course, including how long it will take the team to announce who'll be its manager next season — presumably Davey Johnson, who took over on an interim basis when Jim Riggleman abruptly resigned in June — and whether Rizzo will be able to improve the offense, particularly by finding a leadoff hitter, and add a veteran member of the rotation of some standing.
Other pending questions: Will Livan Hernandez, who'll turn 37 in February, be back? What position will Morse play? Will Adam LaRoche start at first base and can he contribute in 2012 more than during an injury-hampered 2011? Where will top prospect Harper be at the beginning of next season and when will he reach the majors? Can outfielder Werth (.232 average, 58 RBIs) produce the sorts of numbers that were expected of him when he left the Phillies and joined the Nationals last offseason with a $126 million, seven-year contract?
"Everyone sees the process taking place. And that's the exciting part," said Clippard, a righty setup man who went 3-0 with a 1.83 ERA and 104 strikeouts in 88 1-3 innings and earned his first All-Star nod. "Three years ago, we're kind of in shambles, and we're tightening up the screws right now. And everyone can see that."