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As year winds down, a season to remember for Nats

WASHINGTON -- Before the 2012 season started, manager Davey Johnson predicted that the Nationals would win the National League East title, and they did -- with the best record in baseball. It helped they had a quality pitching staff and received timely hitting from the likes of Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper and Ian Desmond.

During the Winter Meetings, Johnson was bold once more, saying that he wants a World Series title with the Nats before he retires after the 2013 season.

But before looking ahead to next season, here is one final look back at 2012, recapped by the top five storylines of the calendar year.

5. The bench comes through

During the offseason, general manager Mike Rizzo overhauled the bench and added veterans Mark DeRosa and Chad Tracy, along with youngsters Tyler Moore, Steve Lombardozzi and Roger Bernadina. Jesus Flores was the only holdover from the 2011 team. Together, they were known as the "Goon Squad," a nickname given them by Tracy. Washington's bench was more than just a tight-knit group. The Nationals' pinch-hitters combined to go 61-for-212 (.288), with four home runs and 26 RBIs. The biggest pinch-hit came in Game 1 of the NL Division Series, when Moore drove in the game-winning run against the Cardinals. But pinch-hitting wasn't the Nationals' only specialty. When regulars such as Zimmerman, Desmond and Jayson Werth went down with injuries, it was the bench that came through. Lombardozzi got starts at second base and left field, Tracy was seeing some time at third base, while Moore and Bernadina played the outfield.

4. Harper makes Major League debut

Harper, who was ranked baseball's No. 2 prospect by, made his Major League debut on April 28 and went 1-for-3 with an RBI in a 4-3 loss against the Dodgers. For reasons he couldn't explain, Harper said he wasn't nervous before the game. Harper grounded out in his first at-bat against right-hander Chad Billingsley, in the second inning. Harper came to bat again with a man on first and one out in the top of the fifth, and he worked the count to 2-1 before flying out to left fielder Tony Gwynn Jr. Two innings later, Harper found himself with a full count in his third encounter with Billingsley, and the rookie hit a double over the head of center fielder Matt Kemp. Harper would go on to have a solid season, leading the team in runs scored and triples. In November, Harper would be named the NL Rookie of the Year.

3. Gio Gonzalez reaches milestone

On Sept. 22, Gonzalez became the club's first pitcher to win 20 games in a season, as the Nationals pounded the Brewers, 10-4, at Nationals Park. Gonzalez became the second pitcher in franchise history -- Ross Grimsley for the 1978 Expos is the other -- to win 20 and the first pitcher in Nats history to strike out 200 batters in a season. Gonzalez pitched seven innings and allowed two unearned runs on three hits.

2. Season over for Stephen Strasburg

On Sept. 8, Johnson decided that Strasburg's season was over. Johnson said he knew it was time to shut down the right-hander after watching him pitch against the Marlins the previous night. Strasburg had his worst outing of the year in what seemed like a repeat of his Aug. 28 start against the Marlins. In that game, Strasburg lasted five innings and allowed seven runs -- five earned -- in a 9-0 loss. On Sept. 7, Strasburg didn't have any answers against Miami, lasting three innings and allowing five runs on six hits. Johnson said it was more of a mental issue than a physical one as to why Strasburg was shut down. Strasburg acknowledged to Johnson that he had a tough time sleeping because of the impending shutdown. Strasburg pitched in 28 games and had a 15-6 record with a 3.16 ERA and 197 strikeouts.

1. Nationals win NL East

Despite a 2-0 loss to the Phillies on Oct. 1, the Nationals won the NL East after the second-place Braves lost, 2-1, to the Pirates. It was the first time the Nats won a division title since moving to D.C. after the 2004 season. The club learned it had won the NL East at approximately 10 p.m. ET, as it was batting in the bottom of the ninth inning, when it was announced at Nationals Park that the Braves had lost. While the fans cheered, the entire team exchanged hugs in the dugout. After Danny Espinosa grounded out to second baseman Chase Utley to end the game, the Nationals celebrated in the clubhouse for about 30 minutes. The team then went back to the field to celebrate with the fans, who were addressed by Gonzalez, Rizzo and Zimmerman. Missing from the celebration was Johnson, who spent the entire celebration in his office.

Washington Nationals, Roger Bernadina, Gio Gonzalez, Bryce Harper, Steve Lombardozzi, Stephen Strasburg, Chad Tracy, Ryan Zimmerman