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The Boston Globe

Sports

Washington Nationals built a winner sooner than expected

Nationals GM Mike Rizzo, appropriately, was at the cen­-ter of the celebration when they clinched the NL East.

manuel balce ceneta/associated press

Nationals GM Mike Rizzo, appropriately, was at the cen­-ter of the celebration when they clinched the NL East.

WASHINGTON — It came down to two choices, Washington or Boston. And while Jayson Werth could have gone with the (seemingly) sure thing in the Red Sox, a team with tradition, a team with in-their-prime stars, a team destined for more postseason baseball and more titles, he didn’t.

He took the money and the chance. And that decision late in 2010 helped alter two franchises.

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Werth helped legitimize the Nationals, a team that had worked hard on the scouting and development side, building what it did not get from its Montreal roots.

He was questioned, mocked, told that he chose Washington only for the dollars. (Admittedly, the seven-year, $126 million contract would have been hard to turn down.)

He thought the Nationals had it in them. He thought they had a shot. And with some convincing evidence from his agent, Scott Boras, Werth believed that not only was the money right, but the team could and would win.

“That was the big selling point,” Werth said. “Scott was really instrumental in really teeing up where the value was in this organization, the type of players that they had, the type of guys they had coming. The direction of the organization.”

General manager Mike Rizzo said it was up. Boras said it was up. Werth believed it was up.

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So he signed, leaving the Red Sox to latch on to Carl Crawford, who was jettisoned to the Dodgers this August, along with Josh Beckett and Adrian Gonzalez, having contributed little to the Red Sox.

And the Nationals? Washington had the best record in the major leagues this year, with a stable of young talent, and with a front office committed to doing things its way, no matter the outside opinions.

The Red Sox? That’s a whole different story.

Only a matter of time

As much faith as Werth had in what Rizzo was telling him, that young talent was projection, concept, hope.

The Nationals’ arrival was supposed to take longer. It was not supposed to happen in 2012.

“I didn’t think that it would necessarily be this year, but I thought it would be next year, for sure,” Werth said. “Is it a little early? Yeah, a little bit, maybe to my expectations. But it’s not that surprising, just because I was aware of the talent.”

The talent has been hard to deny, with Stephen Strasburg serving as ace — until he was shut down in September — and Bryce Harper serving as teenage phenom.

There will be playoff baseball in Washington for the first time since 1933 thanks to the second-youngest team in baseball and a group of veterans that believed in Rizzo’s vision.

Werth began to see the transformation last September.

“I kind of took a step back,” Werth said. “I was like, ‘Man, we’re going to be good, and we’re going to be good soon.’ ”

Coming out of spring training this year, the Nationals suffered a raft of injuries that manager Davey Johnson referred to as “devastating.” But Washington called up pieces, got younger, and watched its future produce now.

“I didn’t like using the word ‘playoffs’ or giving a number of wins that we were going to have,” Rizzo said. “But we knew, internally we knew that we were going to be good and we thought that we would be in this position, fighting for the division. I called it ‘playing meaningful games in September and beyond.’ ”

They knew there would need to be progression, and that’s what they’ve gotten. Harper hasn’t been Mike Trout. But he has been more than enough, with a .270 average, 22 home runs, and Pete Rose-like hustle.

And it’s not only him. It’s rookies such as Steve Lombardozzi and Tyler Moore, the fill-ins that have filled in when needed most. Those pieces were bolstered by veterans — among them Werth, Adam LaRoche, Mark DeRosa. They offered guidance, LaRoche said, and equally important, the rookies listened.

“They’ve been terrific,” Rizzo said. “They’ve really been the backbone of this team.

“When you’re strong up the middle, and you’re strong and young and controllable, talented and athletic and can play on both sides of the ball, you’ve got a good basis and a good foundation for a good team for a long time.”

Built to last

That’s the thing about these Nationals. They are not just set up for 2012. Heck, they won’t even have their ace when they start the playoffs. Harper turns 20 Oct. 16. They have a solid rotation, backed by power and an owner willing to spend.

“We always look at this year with an eye on beyond,” Rizzo said. “That’s our philosophy here. We feel really good about where we’re at. We’ve got a very fertile minor league system and we’re going to have the next wave of major leaguers from that minor league system be pushing this crop of major leaguers.”

And they have their convictions.

Rizzo has been criticized for his decision to shut down Strasburg. It has been the one media firestorm in this joyous season in Washington.

But the choice was made, the shutdown complete. So the players have to believe that, Strasburg or no Strasburg, they can do what they came to do at the start of the season. As pitcher Jordan Zimmermann said, “I don’t see us being any weaker with or without him.”

“We’re committed to it,” Rizzo said. “Is it an easy thing to do? No. Have we taken a lot of heat for it? Yes. And if I had a chance to do it over again, would I still do it? Most definitely.”

And that is why, as Johnson put it, this season, this team is “the Mike Rizzo story.”

“He’s an awfully good baseball man,” Johnson said. “The proof is in the pudding.”

It’s in the young players and the veterans, the mix that has yielded a historic season for the Nationals. It’s in the offense that never allows the team to be out of a game. It’s in the belief that they have, the confidence and momentum.

And, especially, it’s in the rotation that Rizzo has constructed — guys such as Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson.

“As my old boss Stan Kasten once told me, once you develop your own starting rotation, anything is possible,” Rizzo said. “And until you do, nothing is possible.”

The Nationals have that. They have a starting rotation and a lineup and a stable of young talent that has gotten them to their first postseason in Washington.

They have belief. They are “a relentless group,” as LaRoche put it. They are on the brink of a run that could bring a title to the nation’s capital, even without their ace, relying on a star the age of a college sophomore.

For the Nationals, right now, anything is possible.

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.

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