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Nats rose to lofty heights in memorable season

WASHINGTON -- After signing with Nationals following the 2010 season, outfielder Jayson Werth felt the team was "a mess, upside down," before Davey Johnson became manager. To Werth, it felt like the team would never get to the postseason. But Johnson changed things after replacing Jim Riggleman in June of that 2011 season.

Johnson instilled confidence in his players, and it affected their attitude. Shortstop Ian Desmond, for example, had the best year of his career. It was Johnson who put in a new hitting philosophy: stop going to right field all the time and hit the ball where it is pitched.

Asked what stood out for him during the 2012 season, Johnson liked how some of his rookies, such as Tyler Moore and Steve Lombardozzi, came through and helped the team win the National League East title. Johnson also loved the young pitching staff, which carried the team all year.

"I've said that this is really a year where a lot of rookies stood up and actually played out of position and did a heck of a job keeping us in there," Johnson said. "I tip my hat to the organization, the Lerner family, for having some good drafts and getting some quality people and getting them to the big leagues.

"I had a first baseman playing left field [Moore] and a second baseman [Lombardozzi] playing left field, and they did a remarkable job for being rookies in the pennant race.

"Young pitchers doing the things they are capable of doing, right out of Jump Street and all the way to the wire, has been our key to success. So it's just been fun as a baseball man seeing guys do that. That's really the joy in managing -- is seeing a young talent come up and show that they can play up here."

If nothing else, it was certainly an eventful summer. What follows is a look back on all the highs, the lows and the points in-between of the 2012 season:

Record: 98-64, first in NL East

Defining moment: On July 20, the Nationals blew the largest lead in franchise history. They led 9-0 over the Braves, but lost the game, 11-10, in extra innings. Johnson was clearly upset, and called it the worst game he had ever managed. Washington would go on to lose the first game of a doubleheader the next day against Atlanta. Was this the sign of a major collapse?

The answer was no. Left-hander John Lannan was recalled from Triple-A Syracuse for the second game and pitched a solid seven innings, allowing just two runs on five hits to break a three-game losing streak. It was Lannan's first win since Sept. 21, 2011.

Lannan, who spent most of the season in the Minors because left-hander Ross Detwiler beat him out for the final spot in the rotation, would go back to Syracuse after the game. As for the Nationals, they would win the National League East title by four games.

What went right: Led by Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, the pitching staff led the Major Leagues in ERA. Gonzalez became a Cy Young award candidate and led the Major Leagues with 21 victories. ... Last offseason, it looked like the Nationals would trade Adam LaRoche. They were trying to sign free agent Prince Fielder. Fielder took a better offer from Detroit, but the Nats still had LaRoche, who carried the team the first month-and-a-half of the season. It didn't stop there. LaRoche led Washington in almost every offensive category and is one of the best defensive first basemen in baseball. ... Desmond had a career year and credited Johnson for his success. Johnson told Desmond that he would be his shortstop, no matter what happened. For Desmond, the words felt like he was given a contract extension. Desmond ended up with 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases for the season. ... Bryce Harper made his Major League debut in late April and was productive, hitting .270 with 22 homers and 59 RBIs. It appears the Nationals have a center fielder for years to come.

What went wrong: It all happened in the postseason. The pitching staff, the strength of the team, imploded. The bullpen allowed 15 earned runs in 18 2/3 innings. Among the starters, only Detwiler had a quality start and pitched at least six innings against the Cardinals in the Division Series. It didn't help that the team was without Strasburg, who was shut down in September after having Tommy John surgery in late 2010.

The offense wasn't much better. Werth was the only hitter who came up big in the later innings, when he hit his walk-off homer in Game 4. Desmond and Ryan Zimmerman were the only regular position players on the Nationals who hit over .300 in the five-game defeat.

Biggest surprise: During the offseason, general manager Mike Rizzo overhauled the bench and added veterans Mark DeRosa and Chad Tracy, along with youngsters Moore, Lombardozzi, Roger Bernadina and Sandy Leon. Jesus Flores was the only holdover from last year's team. Together, they are known as the "Goon Squad," a nickname given them by Tracy.

Washington's bench was more than just a tight-knit group. As pinch hitters, the Nationals were a combined .288 (61-for-212) with four runs and 26 RBIs. The biggest pinch-hit came in Game 1 of the NLDS, when Moore drove in the game-winning run. But pinch-hitting wasn't the Nationals' only specialty. When regulars such as Zimmerman, Werth and Desmond went down with injuries, it was the bench that came through. There was Lombardozzi getting starts at second base and left field. Tracy was seeing some time at third base, while Moore and Bernadina played the outfield.

Bill Ladson is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats.
Read More: Washington Nationals, Tyler Moore, Ian Desmond, Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Adam LaRoche, Ryan Zimmerman, Ross Detwiler, Steve Lombardozzi, John Lannan