April 2012

The Real Comeback Kids

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The Nationals hosted the Boston Red Sox on a perfect, warm spring afternoon in the Nation’s Capital on Tuesday. The hometown nine fell behind 6-0 early, but mounted an epic comeback to take a late lead. The hard-fought, back-and-forth affair ended on a bizarre play at the plate, but the real story of the day was only about to begin.

First, to the details of the game. After watching Clay Buchholz dominate through four perfect innings with his team scoring a half dozen runs behind him, the Nationals finally struck back in the bottom of the fifth. In his first game back in D.C., Wilson Ramos got the offense going with a three-run shot to cut the deficit in half at 6-3 through five innings. Ian Desmond added a solo shot in the sixth to get Washington back within two, setting up a three-run rally in the seventh that would put them in front. Ramos was again at the center of the action, driving home the first run of the inning with an RBI-single, then scoring the third and final tally of the frame on Steve Lombardozzi’s sacrifice fly to make it 7-6. But the Sox got single runs in both the eighth and ninth to push back ahead, 8-7.

Wilson Ramos homered early in the game and scored the go-ahead run in the seventh inning.

It seemed as though Boston would survive, quickly getting the first two outs in the bottom of the ninth, but Ian Desmond drew a two-out walk, then stole second with Danny Espinosa at the plate. The other half of the Nationals double-play duo ripped a single to center field, and Desmond tore around third, heading to the plate as the potential game-tying run. He beat the throw by a full step, and slid through the block of catcher Daniel Butler, but was called out at home to end the game. Desmond popped up to his feet to object, and manager Davey Johnson could be seen from the dugout, pleading his shortstop’s case, “he was safe!”

With a little perspective, though, we can realize that perhaps the call was a blessing in disguise. After all, it signaled the end of Spring Training and a game with no real meaning in the standings. Desmond will have plenty of chances for redemption, starting Thursday afternoon at Wrigley Field when the Nationals officially open their 2012 campaign against the Cubs.

There was another event that took place at Nationals Park on Tuesday that helped provide some perspective: The second annual Wounded Warrior Amputee Celebrity Softball Classic. After joining the Nationals for Spring Training in Viera in February, these heroes got their chance to take on a celebrity team full of local athletes, media personalities and politicians in the outfield following the Nationals-Red Sox exhibition game.

The Wounded Warriors pose with local celebrities and players before their game.

The Washington Nationals Wounded Warriors Amputee Softball Team received a standing ovation from the crowd when they took the field prior to the exhibition game, but they had not trained this hard and flown all this way simply to participate. As the lights took effect for their contest, they broke open a close game early and cruised to a 17-4 victory.

“These guys can mash,” said Nats play-by-play man Charlie Slowes, who has played in the game each of the past two years. “They’re even better than they were last year.”

At the end of the day, there was no question who the real comeback kids were. For the softball players, the long journey back from the pains of war and the process of readjustment to life back at home had brought them all the way here, to Nationals Park, playing out on the field like Major Leaguers. By the game’s end, with the crowd cheering and calling from the stands, asking for autographs, you would have sworn that they were the celebrity team.

To Begin Again from the Beginning

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Spring Training can spoil you, with its temperatures that stay warm through the balmy evenings and its persistent sunshine. It’s perfect beach weather, even if you don’t have the time to actually enjoy the surf and sand. Despite the heavy travel and the general lack of off-days, there is a vacation-like quality about the whole process.

Of course, all of that ends today. Rather, it ended last night, when the team stepped off the charter from Ft. Myers, landing at Dulles at about 7:45pm. The temperature was a mild 60 degrees, but still a dozen degrees colder than the coldest anyone in camp had felt in weeks. It was a solemn but encouraging reminder that we were home, that the real season was about to begin. It will certainly get no warmer in Chicago on Thursday, as the 2012 campaign begins in earnest at the hallowed grounds of Wrigley Field.

Here’s a quick timeline of some of the notable events as Spring Training quietly came to its unofficial end (after all, there is one last exhibition game in D.C. Tuesday):

6:57am: We pull into Space Coast Stadium before dawn, as players, coaches and staff are already on the scene loading the moving van and the busses.

7:41am: Wheels rolling, we take off from Viera on our way to Ft. Myers, not to return until next February.

JetBlue Field, spring home of the Red Sox, from in front of the home dugout.

11:22am: After a long ride across the state of Florida, we arrive at beautiful, new JetBlue ballpark, also known as Fenway South, the spring home of the Boston Red Sox.

12:34pm: In Davey Johnson’s pregame press conference, he expresses his confidence in the team in both the near and long term. “I like our on-field product right now,” he said. “And it’s only going to get stronger.”

1:35pm: Aaron Cook throws the first pitch of the final Florida game of 2012 for the Nationals, a ball high to Roger Bernadina.

2:26pm: Danny Espinosa gets the Nationals on the board first with a solo home run, his second of the spring and his second in as many days.

3:46pm: Down in the clubhouse, we run into Chad Durbin. The reliever has just returned to the team after being with his wife, who delivered a healthy baby boy on Friday, and is running on almost no sleep. Regarding his outing, he quips, “I might have made a couple of mistakes. Not that I remember them.”

5:17pm: The game over, the buses have brought us literally across the street from the ballpark to the Southwest Florida International Airport, where we take off on the team charter to return to D.C.

The view from high atop the Green Monster at JetBlue Park, also known as Fenway South.

7:42pm: It’s official, the 2012 Nationals have arrived in the Nation’s Capital for the first time. Well, almost. The charter actually lands at Dulles, where we meet another round of buses to get us home.

8:37pm: Just blocks from the ballpark, we pull off of 395 onto South Capitol Street, swinging around the elbow-shaped off ramp. To our right, in the dark, a lit-up field at the Randall Recreation Center is buzzing with activity. Two teams are playing baseball, adorned in their simple, slightly mismatched uniforms at a park with an all-dirt infield. The only spectators are a handful of parents and coaches; there are no grandstands, no electronic scoreboards, no walk-up music.

This is the game in its purest form, a humble reminder of the joy that can sometimes be lost in the grind of the Major League calendar. It is also a reminder that on fields big and small everywhere, baseball is ready to be played once more.

8:41pm: After a long day of travel and a longer month of preparation and anticipation, we’re finally home.

From The Desk Of Mark Lerner – Heading Home

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Hello Nationals Fans,

Is everyone counting backwards, like I am? Only three days until the April 5, 2012 Season Opener on Chicago’s north side.

But before we indulge ourselves with grandiose visions of Wrigley Field, Opening Week and of course our April 12 home opener against the Reds, I also want to mention how happy I am personally – as is my entire family – for our dear friend Stan Kasten, who along with Magic Johnson and Guggenheim Partners, agreed to purchase the Dodgers last week.

Upon getting word that this transaction was going through, I immediately called Stan, who was in New York signing the first wave of legal documents. He was elated and for good reason. Stan in Hollywood…a PERFECT match!

The Dodgers are a crown-jewel franchise with a special place historically in our game. Baseball is a better sport when the Dodgers are prominent. I am looking forward to seeing Stan – and hopefully meeting Magic – when we head west to Los Angeles to visit one of my favorite places in baseball, Dodger Stadium, starting on April 27.

The cherry blossoms in bloom can mean only one thing: it's time for Opening Day.

Now, let’s put a wrap on the ‘12 Grapefruit League season, Davey Johnson’s first camp as Manager of the Nats.

Remember, Davey is a baseball lifer whose baseball life began as a Spring Training bat boy with our Senators in the early 1950′s. He had a vision and by spring’s end, I think it is safe to say this was the most competitive camp in Nationals history. And that competition stemmed largely from the strongest crop of minor leaguers we’ve ever had.

Davey knows that everything great in this game starts in Spring Training. Sure, there were some bumps along the way, and perhaps a few more injuries than we’d like to see. Prominent players like Michael Morse, Drew Storen, Chien-Ming Wang, Adam LaRoche and Rick Ankiel have all been a little banged up.  But, the way I see it, better now than in May or June, right?

At the end of the day, a lot did go right. Easily, the best news of the spring came on Feb. 26 as the Nationals signed Ryan Zimmerman to a long-term contract extension. Ryan’s playing abilities are obvious, but he is also a true gentleman.

There is wonderful symmetry in knowing that the first draft selection (2005) in the history of the Nationals will be playing in D.C. for a long time, perhaps his entire career. There are just not enough star athletes that stay with one club, in one town, their entire careers.

The games started on March 2 with a 3-0 victory over D.C.’s own Georgetown University. Even with the loss, the young Hoyas were provided with a challenge and thrill they will never forget.

Rick Ankiel got his spring off to a great start as he hit an opposite-field homer against the Mets in his hometown of Port St. Lucie. I know it must have been gratifying for him to perform in front of family, friends and some of his former high school teachers and coaches.

Even though he will start the season in Syracuse, Corey Brown seemed to emerge from an injury-riddled 2011 season with a strong spring showing (.318, one homer, 4 RBI in 10 games). I bet he continues his good play in Syracuse.

Mark DeRosa showed everyone that his wrist was healthy, hitting .400+ for the spring. He also (jokingly) claims he set a Grapefruit League record with 10 walks in less than 50 plate appearances. I don’t know about that, but he was on base 2-3 times a game. He is going to be a real weapon for Davey.

Bryce Harper performed well on the field, but a minor injury temporarily slowed his momentum. That said, he showed all of the maturity needed to excel off the field. He managed loads of media requests and was always ready to play, the calf injury notwithstanding.

Bryce handled his option to Syracuse with true class, but at the same moment, he was charged up by Davey’s challenge to play center field. I have a feeling we will be seeing Bryce in D.C. in the not-too-distant future.

This spring, we enjoyed meeting Gio Gonzalez and watching him perform in our uniform for the first time. That curveball will be something I look forward to seeing once every five days for a long time to come. And the remainder of his repertoire was not too shabby either.

Jordan Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson will round out one of the hardest-throwing staffs in baseball. Both are quiet, both are competitors. Both are healthy and slot quite nicely into our rotation. And let’s not forget John Lannan who pitched very well this spring and Chien-Ming Wang, who was throwing so well prior to his hamstring injury. He is recovering nicely and will be another major piece for us as the season goes on.

And how about our bullpen? They picked up where they left off last season and now we have added Brad Lidge, one of the most accomplished relievers in the game today. I’d also like to note just how well Henry Rodriguez pitched. He was consistently outstanding from Day 1 of camp.

With all that said, I think the best sight of all this spring was Wilson Ramos behind the plate.  I know how excited I was in seeing him for the first time, so I can only wonder how emotionally taxing his first week of camp was. There is something about the atmosphere created by teammates in a clubhouse setting. Wilson is back where he belongs, with us and in a Nationals uniform, safe and sound.

I sense Mike Rizzo’s off-season acquisitions, Davey’s confidence, and the unusually warm temps this spring have generated a strong buzz for Nationals baseball in D.C.

A strong start in April would certainly help the equation, but I keep reminding myself that it is a long season.

Thanks for your continued support Nats fans. Let’s play ball! It is finally time.

I’ll look forward to seeing everyone all season long at beautiful and picturesque Nationals Park.

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