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12/26/11 10:00 AM EST

Nationals made giant strides in 2011

WASHINGTON -- The Nationals made significant strides in 2011. They finished in third place in the National League East and nearly had a record over .500 for the first time since moving to the nation's capital after the '04 season.

One of the reasons for the improvement was first baseman/outfielder Mike Morse. He was clearly the team's MVP. The right-handed-hitting Morse hit .303 with 31 home runs and 95 RBIs, leading the Nationals in all three categories.

Morse was one of many story lines on the Nationals in 2011. Here were the five biggest.

5. Wilson Ramos is home

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More than 50 hours after he was kidnapped by four armed gunmen from the front yard of his mother's home in Santa Ines, outside of Valencia, Venezuela, Ramos was rescued by Venezuelan authorities after a 15-minute gunfight. The 24-year-old was rescued during an air operation in the mountains in the state of Carabobo, roughly 40 miles northwest of where he was abducted.

4. Nationals end season on positive note

On Sept. 28, right-hander Stephen Strasburg pitched six scoreless innings and helped the Nationals win their season finale, 3-1, over the Marlins. Strasburg allowed just one hit and struck out 10. Washington ended the season 80-81, its second-best record since moving to the nation's capital after the '04 season. But all the talk was about how much the players wanted Davey Johnson to return as manager of the team. The players received their wish in October, as Johnson was officially named the full-time manager.

3. The return of Strasburg

Strasburg didn't miss a beat on Sept. 6. A little more than a year after having major elbow surgery, Strasburg pitched the way he always has -- like the ace of the Nationals. The 23-year-old right-hander struck out four hitters and walked none in Washington's 7-3 loss to Los Angeles. He threw 56 pitches, 40 for strikes, and his fastball was clocked as high as 99 mph. Scheduled to pitch four innings, Strasburg ended up throwing five shutout innings and allowed two hits before leaving the game with a 3-0 lead. He averaged 11.2 pitches per inning.

2. Gio is a member of the Nationals

The Nationals were able to land a top starting pitcher on Dec. 22, acquiring left-hander Gio Gonzalez from the A's in exchange for pitching prospects Brad Peacock, Tommy Milone and A.J. Cole and catching prospect Derek Norris. CBSsports.com reported that Washington also received right-hander Robert Gilliam in the deal. Gonzalez joins a rotation that will include Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, John Lannan, Chien-Ming Wang and Ross Detwiler.

1. Jim Riggleman resigns as manager; Johnson takes over

Riggleman resigned as manager of the Nationals on June 23, minutes after Washington blanked Seattle, 1-0. Riggleman was upset that Rizzo would not discuss picking up his option for 2012. As the players were getting ready for a trip to Chicago to play the White Sox, Riggleman stood in the middle of the Nationals' clubhouse and told the media he didn't feel like he was part of the team's future. Three days later, the club announced that Johnson would be the interim manager.

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.