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Washington Nationals- The Real Deal

Washington Nationals Manager, Davey Johnson

In the span of a single week the Washington Nationals have gone from humiliation to redemption to dominance.

The Precipice

Just last Friday, they had their ace on the mound and a 9-0 lead. And then it unraveled historically. They ended up suffering the most gut-wrenching loss in franchise history, blowing the lead and then a 10th inning comeback to the Atlanta Braves in a defeat so stinging and surreal it left usually talkative Nat’s skipper, Davey Johnson, a stammering, shaken man in his post-game press conference.

What would have been a 4 and half game lead against the 2nd place Braves, was suddenly and shockingly reduced to 2 and a half.  How does a team recover from such a humiliation before the home fans in the opening game of what was billed the most important series of the season to date?

They didn’t. In the first game of a doubleheader the next day, they were shut out 4-0.  Lead down to a game and a half.  The wheels had come off.  It had all been an illusion.

The Nats looked like just another 1st half Cinderella.  It seemed they were on the verge of a collapse like the 1995 team that entered the all-star break in first place and promptly went into a 2nd half swoon that left them in their usual position- last place.

Nats nation was stunned.  On the mound as their last defense against the abyss was their 6th starter, John Lannan, a two-time opening day pitcher who found himself rudely relegated to the minor leagues at the start of the season but brought up on this day thanks to baseball’s new rule allowing a team to carry an extra player for doubleheaders.

And the gloom only deepened as he and the Nats quickly fell behind the Braves 2-0 in the very first inning of the night cap.

Redemption

And then something changed.  Inalterably.  And maybe forever.  The discarded Lannan found his rhythm.  The Braves would not score again that night.  The Nats hitters, listless through four innings, finally broke through, gifted by the fickle Baseball Gods.  A wild pitch scored a run and they were on the board.  In the 6th, a ground ball out scored another, game tied 2-2.

In the 7th, a 4th-string catcher, Sandy Leon hit a grounder to first and the Baseball Gods smiled again.  The ball hit the bag and magically turned into a single.  A two-out single would give the Nats a 3-2 lead.

They would go on tack on two more runs.  The nightmare had ended.  Lannan was sent back to the minors the next day, now likely to return for the stretch run when NL strike-out leader, Stephen Strasburg, is shut down for the season.

On to Sunday, when a Nats victory would result in a series split and a remarkable redemption from the historic Friday night debacle.  And so they won 9-2 on the shoulders of 3rd baseman, Ryan Zimmerman’s two home runs.

It All Comes Together

They have since been unstoppable.  Bryce Harper, with the big-stage glittering before the teenager’s eyes,  homered in his first at-bat ever in New York City and the Nats would go on to sweep an unraveling Mets team in three straight.

And the dominance continued Thursday night with an 8-2 win in the opening of a 4-game series in Milwaukee.

Since the nightmare a week ago today, they’ve responded with 6 wins in 7 games.  They’ve won 6 in a row.  They are the first Washington team to go 20 games over .500 since 1945.  They are tied with the New York Yankees with the best record in baseball.

After the victory over the Brewers, Davey Johnson was asked what he thought about reaching so many milestones and he answered not with bravado or hubris.  He responded that there was still a lot of work to do and then, with a steely determination, “We haven’t done nothin’.”

Except rising from the ashes to become, at least for now, the best team in the sport. 

The Future

Baseball’s trading deadline is next Tuesday.   It’s usually the time of year pennant contenders seek the final piece of the puzzle  that will put them over the top.   There is no urgency in Washington.  Let other teams give up their young minor league talent for 2-month rental all-stars.   The Nats have the depth, the talent, the humility, the leadership and most of all- the chemistry and work ethic that makes any new, splashy additions to this team thoroughly and completely unnecessary.  

Earlier in the season, the Washington Nationals were a curiousity and a new-fangled sensation.  They managed to overcome one injury after another to key players.  In Strasburg and Harper they had youthful, potential hall-of-famers.  No one ever doubted their pitching; it’s been the best in the game since Day One.  But in those days, they had an anemic offense.  

Now- there is no team in the sport that has scored more runs in the month of July.  The pitching remains suffocating.  Their manager pushes, cajoles, compliments and motivates his players.   They have weathered injuries and responded to things like the worst blown lead in the history of the franchise a mere week ago- in a resounding manner.   They have answered every challenge thrown their way.  They are not wilting, they are still gathering strength.

This is not a good team.  This is a great team.  One for the ages.  A dynasty is being born before our very eyes.

The Night the Kids Took Over Fenway Park

June 9, 2012 1 comment

Oh my.  There was a baseball game played in Boston last night that was one for the ages.  Washington’s two young phenoms put on a clinic as Stephen Strasburg struck out 13 and Bryce Harper pounded three hits including a mighty 420 foot blast to the deepest part of one of the most revered places in the game- Fenway Park.

Sometimes, words are completely inadequate in capturing the history and drama of a given event.  But the promise of the future and the remarkable nature of what occurred last night seemed to bring out the poet in members of baseball’s writing community.   Besides history, the game produced two of the best written articles you’ll ever read that captured every bit of it.

The Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore really outdid himself.   Here’s the piece in its entirety and worth every second of your investment.  This is but a taste.

A century’s worth of players have passed through Fenway Park, where history seeps through the emerald walls. Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper graced the cathedral for the first time on Friday night, and they did not dissolve into its annals. They made them richer, more complete: The old yard can say it bore witness to Strasburg and Harper at their unbridled beginning, the moment in time when the Washington Nationals became something fresh and different.

Two of the most arresting players in baseball spearheaded the Nationals’ assault on the Boston Red Sox in a 7-4 victory. Harper, the 19-year-old without an off switch, went 3 for 5 with a double, three RBI and a 420-foot, two-run home run. Strasburg, pitching on the two-year anniversary of his masterful debut, threw his first 100-mph fastball of the season, struck out 13 over six innings of four-hit ball and escaped a bases-loaded jam by throwing a 3-2 fastball with his 119th and final pitch.

It was their first visit to Fenway.  And as evidence of how much trouble is brewing for the rest of baseball with these two kids- the bigger the moment, the better they play.  They seize the spotlight with flair and greatness.  They both have a deep understanding and appreciation of the history of the game.  Harper said he was awestruck thinking he was hitting from the same batter’s box as Ted Williams.  Strasburg pitched his second best game ever, surpassed only by his major league debut, another one of those moments he seized two years ago to the day.

ESPNBoston.com’s Gordon Edes is also in fine voice this morning.  Impressive to me on a number of different levels, is that this is a Boston Red Sox beat writer waxing poetic about a visiting team.  But history is history, and a good reporter and a good writer knows when sublime drama eclipses such mundane things as rooting interests.

Strasburg, featuring a fastball that touched 100 mph, a changeup that violated the laws of nature and a curveball bereft of compassion, struck out seven Red Sox in a span of eight batters. There’s no telling how many strikeouts he might have finished with if his pitch count hadn’t climbed to 119 with nine outs to go.

“I knew I was up there, but I had so much adrenaline being at Fenway for the first time, it didn’t really matter,” Strasburg said.

But if Strasburg (7-1) is the rainbow, then center fielder Harper is the Transit of Venus, an astronomical phenomenon that appears, oh, once a century or so. Harper homered to the right of the 420-foot triangle in center, doubled and singled, driving in three runs and scoring two, in one of the most precocious performances the 100-year-old edifice has ever seen.

Both Kilgore and Edes point out that the only other 19-year olds to hit homers in Fenway Park were Mickey Mantle, Al Kaline and Robin Yount- all hall-of-famers.  The only 19 year-olds to collect three hits at Fenway were Kaline and Ken Griffey Jr.

There are not enough superlatives to describe the sheer wonder of what we are seeing with this baseball team from the nation’s capital.  The last time they were this good was in the 1920’s when they won their only World Series behind the arm of the Big Train, Walter Johnson.

But this squad has two players for the ages.  And I might add, in Davey Johnson, one of the greatest managers and baseball men the game has ever seen.  I am astounded I have actually lived long enough to witness something so pure and amazing and rare.  May we all savor and treasure it and appreciate the incredible good fortune the fates have conspired to give us.   Some of the greatest players in the greatest game ever devised have somehow managed to land on our doorstep, in a town that has seen nothing but baseball futility for well over 80 years.