October 2012

Whither, Teddy?

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Of all the great surprises the Washington Nationals have supplied the fans of our Nation’s Capitol this year, none have generated nearly as much fanfare, or passion, as the one that has not yet occurred. In a season of firsts, of breakthroughs, of the baseball universe being flipped on its head and the written rules of convention sent through the shredder, one constant has remained: Teddy is still winless.

Too often, Teddy has fallen while the other Racing Presidents succeed.

Here we sit, on the final day of the regular season, with the Nationals as 2012 National League East Champions. The only bit of business left to decide on the field is for the top overall seed, which Washington would clinch with a win or a Cincinnati loss. And while manager Davey Johnson and the team would love to see Edwin Jackson get his 10th Curly W, the locals have a more pressing matter on their collective minds. Is today the day Teddy finally wins?

The question has become a hotly contested one, from the Nationals fan base to a national audience. The story has been covered by ABC News and made the front page of the Wall Street Journal. ESPN’s E:60 magazine program recently featured Teddy in a Ken Burns-narrated piece featuring Arizona Senator and 2008 presidential nominee John McCain and Roosevelt’s great great-grandson Winthrop, both of whom extolled his reputation as “The Rough Rider.” The program noted that Roosevelt was the first president to own a car, the first to fly in an airplane, and the first to win a Nobel Prize, yet never the first to cross the finish line in the Presidents Race.

“I am outraged,” said Senator McCain during the piece. “I’m calling for Congressional hearings to right this horrible wrong.”

Will today finally be Teddy’s day?

McCain, along with WWE star John Cena and members of the U.S. Army have appeared in videos over the past few days giving words of encouragement and training techniques, doing their best to help Teddy overcome both the physical and mental sides of the race. After 525 consecutive losses, what will it take for our 26th president to finally break through?

Surely Mike Rizzo, the Nationals EVP of Baseball Operations and General Manager, the man who laid the framework to take this Nationals club to the division crown would know. He engineered the rosters that have added 10, 11 and 17 (and counting) wins over the past three seasons. Could he be the one to provide the final push for Teddy to reach the top of the mountain?

“It’s above my pay grade,” said Rizzo on the night the Nationals clinched the NL East.

And so the mystery remains. One thing is for sure, though. Once the center field gate opens after the top of the fourth inning, the eyes of the nation will be on The Rough Rider, on the mustached and bespectacled President in the number 26 jersey, to see if he will, in his own words, “Fail while daring greatly,” or if this will finally be his moment of glory.

Go Teddy.

- WATCH THE PRESIDENTS RACE -

#HarpeROY

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Major League Baseball announced on Tuesday that Bryce Harper was awarded National League Rookie of the Month for September. While that trophy will no doubt find a nice home on the mantle next to the identical one he took home in May, we’re more interested in the 19 year-old’s candidacy for a larger award: National League Rookie of the Year.

Harper’s hustle was epitomized by his swipe of home for his first career steal.

Harper should not win the award because he’s the most famous first-year player in the league. He shouldn’t win because television networks choose to portray him as the face of the Nationals as they storm into their first-ever postseason. And while Harper may reap the benefits of his notoriety when the final vote comes down, it is his performance on the field and his unmistakably profound impact that will have earned him the award, should he win it.

Why? Harper changes the game around him. His ability – and propensity – to bunt, forces the third baseman to play near the line and square with the bag. His success against righties prompts pitcher-for-hitter bullpen moves from opposing managers. His speed prevents infielders from double-clutching, lest he turn a routine grounder into an infield single. Gather the ball too casually as an outfielder and a single becomes a double, or a double a triple. Did we mention he leads the team and ranks in the top 10 in the league with nine triples? In fact, he’s the first rookie with nine triples and 20 home runs since Nomar Garciaparra who, you guessed it, won Rookie of the Year back in 1997 with the Boston Red Sox.

On May 6, the Nationals hosted the Philadelphia Phillies in the final game of NATITUDE Weekend. Cole Hamels decided to “welcome” the rookie to the big leagues by plunking him on his first pitch with two away and no runners on base in the first inning. When Chad Tracy followed with a single to left, Harper raced all the way to third base, right in the face of left fielder Juan Pierre. And we all remember what happened next, as the 19 year-old timed Hamels’ pick-off lob to first base, breaking for the plate and stealing home.

On June 5, the Nationals were embroiled in the tightest division race in baseball, as they opened a three-game set at home against the Mets in a three-way tie for first place with New York and Miami. The opening game of the series dragged into the 12th, as Ian Desmond kept the Nationals alive long enough for Harper to plate the winning run on a two-out, two-strike, bases loaded liner to left field. It was the first walk-off hit for any teenager since Gary Sheffield in 1988, three years before Harper was even born.

Harper leads all National League rookies with 57 extra-base hits, including 22 home runs. He is just the second teenager in history to hit 20 or more longballs in a season, joining Tony Conigliaro, who belted 24 for the ’64 Red Sox. Harper is doing more than standing out among his fellow rookies, though, as he is tearing up the league at a pace almost unfathomable for a teenager.

Harper’s prodigious power at such a young age puts him in elite company.

His 98 runs scored are 17 better than his closest competitor and ranks him fifth in the National League, ahead of Atlanta leadoff man Michael Bourn. His .651 slugging percentage and 69 total bases were both the second-highest marks in all of baseball for the month of September, while his 26 runs scored led the Majors. That’s right – no Major League Baseball player crossed home plate more times than Bryce Harper in the month of September.

After his second inning steal Tuesday night, the center fielder and two-hole hitter on the best team in baseball sat just two swipes shy of a 20-20 season, with an OPS north of .800 for the season.

Harper doesn’t need his Rookie of the Year case made for him. But hey, we figured we’d do it anyway, to remind everyone of just how historic a season he has delivered. Share your own favorite Harper moments in the comments below or on Twitter using the hashtag #HarpeROY.

What to Watch For: 10/2

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Philadelphia Phillies (81-79) vs. Washington Nationals (96-64)

RHP B.J. Rosenberg (1-2, 6.86) vs. LHP Tom Gorzelanny (4-2, 2.90)

The Nationals clinched their first-ever NL East title Monday night, with two games remaining in the 2012 regular season. As such, Tom Gorzelanny takes the place of 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez as tonight’s starter as Washington takes on the Phillies in the middle contest of a three-game set.

QUOTE OF THE DAY

From Adam LaRoche, former Pittsburgh Pirate, on Pittsburgh beating Atlanta 2-1 to eliminate the Braves from NL East contention, giving the Nationals the division crown:

“It’s the first time in my life that I’ve rooted for the Pirates.”

NATIONALS LINEUP

1. Lombardozzi 2B

2. Harper CF

3. Moore LF

4. LaRoche 1B

5. Tracy 3B

6. DeRosa SS

7. Bernadina RF

8. Leon C

9. Gorzelanny LHP

NL EAST CHAMPS

Last night, the Nationals won their first-ever NL East crown and secured a spot in the National League Division Series. Their magic number, which began the day at one as the result of a 96-win campaign, reached zero when Atlanta lost, 2-1, on Monday at Pittsburgh. The District will experience its first postseason October baseball since the 1933 AL Nationals lost a five-game World Series to the Giants. Those AL Nationals also won AL pennants in 1924 (World Champions) and ‘25. This marks the second postseason trip for the franchise, as Montreal lost to the Dodgers in the five-game ‘81 NLCS.

GORZO GETS THE BALL

Replacing scheduled starter Gio Gonzalez, Tom Gorzelanny today will make his first start since July 23, 2011. The lefty is 35-42 with a 4.62 ERA in 110 career starts and owns 50 quality starts over that span. In his last outing on Friday, he struck out one en route to scattering a hit and two walks in 2.2 scoreless innings.

DATE IN DC BASEBALL

October 2, 2009: The Nationals win their fifth straight (part of a seven-game win streak to end the season), as Livan Hernandez leads them to a 6-3 victory at Atlanta. Mike MacDougal notches his 20th save with a scoreless ninth inning, while Ian Desmond homers and drives home three runs.

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Letting It Soak In

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Every signature moment in this 2012 Washington Nationals season has composed its own storyline. With dramatic victories woven throughout the tapestry of a thrilling campaign, it would have been understandable to expect some sort of coup de gras to cap off a season’s worth of celebration. Maybe the Nationals didn’t provide the storybook clinching moment that television producers dream of, with a dog-pile on the pitcher’s mound, as they missed their first chance to wrap up the division title on Sunday in St. Louis. There was a pretty brilliant, sparkling silver lining, though, knowing that the team would return home leading by 3.0 games with three games left on the regular season slate.

That presented the opportunity to clinch the division at home against the five-time defending division champion Phillies, who had thrice celebrated their own glory with wins over the Nationals. But what if Washington didn’t win, and instead had to rely on Atlanta, one of the hottest teams in baseball down the stretch, to lose? Would that turn of events scrub some of the luster from Washington’s shiny division crown?

The Nationals clinched the 2012 NL East title at home Monday night.

On Sunday afternoon, more than 24 hours before the division would be decided, Nationals broadcaster Dave Jageler refused to allow such a scenario to take anything away from the accomplishment.

“There’s no such thing as ‘backing in’ when you win 96 games,” he declared.

Based on the celebrations taking place on the field Monday night – after the Nationals 2-0 loss to the Phillies became a mere footnote in their 2012 National League East Championship season, thanks to the Braves 2-1 defeat in Pittsburgh – the players agreed. While they maintained their composure nearly two weeks earlier, following the clinch of the first postseason berth in D.C. baseball since 1933, they held nothing back upon taking the division.

They jumped around in jubilation, spraying each other with any beverage available. When Mike Rizzo was being interviewed live on MASN, Wilson Ramos emptied an entire bottle of champagne over his head. As soon as players huddled together in the clubhouse in celebration, Michael Morse unleashed a tidal wave of water from a Gatorade bucket into the middle of the fray. By the end of the night, Jayson Werth’s home white number 28 jersey was stained pink from his red undershirt bleeding through the mix of beverages.

Werth has bounced back with a great year, helping mentor Harper along the way.

“It was kind of odd,” said Werth, of the way the evening unfolded. “We’re getting beat, but we’re celebrating. But this team deserves this. We’ve come a long way.”

This was, after all, what Werth envisioned when he made the decision to leave the team occupying the visitor’s dugout for the final series of the regular season to join the Nationals before the 2011 campaign. He has become a leader on this Washington club, not only taking rookie Bryce Harper under his wing, but guiding the offense at the top of the lineup since his return from a broken wrist in early May. He is batting .308 with a .392 on-base percentage, scoring 32 runs over 53 games during that span, and his ability to continue to set the table will be key for the Nationals in the postseason.

“It’s gratifying, it’s quite an accomplishment,” he said, of winning the division. “We’ve come quite a long way in a very short time, and we’ve got a long way to go. We’ve got a good young club. I think we should do this every year.”

Before Werth’s strong stretch drive, and before Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse helped Washington assert itself as one of the National League’s top offensive clubs in the second half of the season, another veteran made his biggest mark on this team. Adam LaRoche carried the club through the early part of the year, on his way to matching his career-high in home runs with 32, sitting just one RBI shy of the century mark with two games to play. For his efforts, he will be rewarded with his first trip to the postseason since 2005.

Adam LaRoche hugs daughter Montana during the on-field celebration.

“It means a lot personally,” said LaRoche as he gazed up from the field at the fans behind the Nationals dugout, still screaming and cheering nearly an hour after the end of the game. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been in the playoffs.”

Asked if he had forgotten the feeling of clinching, the mix of ecstasy, accomplishment and relief, he admitted that he had.

“You do, when it’s been this long,” he said. “You see the other team celebrate, you want to be out there and be a part of it. There’s a big difference.”

Amid the mess of congratulatory hugs, handshakes and post-game interviews, one tall, shaggy-haired man stood to the side, shivering in the cool fall night, his freshly printed NL East Champions shirt already steeped in celebration. Perhaps no man’s journey to standing on this field, literally soaking in the division title, was as trying as John Lannan’s, who took his first loss in six starts for the Nationals this season Monday night, despite pitching well yet again. It was his first start, the back-end of a doubleheader on July 21, that proved to be a turning point for Washington, stopping the division-rival Braves after they had narrowed the division gap to a game-and-a-half, never letting them pull any closer. Looking up at the fans, he was happy to enjoy every bit of the moment at hand.

Gio Gonzalez embraces Mark Lerner and waves to the crowd.

“This has been awesome,” he said of the celebration. “These guys (the fans), they deserve it as much as we do. It’s something special. I’m just glad to be a part of it. The win would have been icing on the cake, but as soon as the champagne was popped, it was all forgotten.”

The man who seemed to be enjoying the moment the most, though, may have been Gio Gonzalez, who alternated celebrating with his teammates, family and the fans, ducking in and out of interviews. His Cy Young-worthy season has marked the difference between a team that may have simply been competitive and one that has brought the first division title to D.C. in 79 years. Coming from an Oakland team that never made the playoffs during his tenure, his first taste of such success left him living in the moment, riding the wave of emotion, not worrying yet about the challenges that lie ahead.

“This is unbelievable,” he exclaimed. “I don’t want to wake up, boys. I’m still dreaming.”

Here’s to hoping the dream doesn’t end until November.

What to Watch For: 10/1

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Philadelphia Phillies (80-79) vs. Washington Nationals (96-63)

RHP Kyle Kendrick (10-12, 4.08) vs. LHP John Lannan (4-0, 4.23)

The Nationals return to D.C. for the final homestand of the regular season to face the division-rival Phillies, needing just one more win to secure their first-ever National League East title. John Lannan, who defeated Philadelphia on the road just five days ago, takes the hill against Kyle Kendrick in a rematch of that game’s starters.

QUOTE OF THE DAY

From manager Davey Johnson, who actually answered when he would like to play in the first round of the playoffs, despite being asked whom he would prefer to face:

“I’d like to play Sunday.”

The team that finishes the National League with the best record will open their NLDS series on Sunday rather than Saturday, as they await the Wild Card winner from Friday.

NATIONALS LINEUP

1. Werth RF

2. Harper CF

3. Zimmerman 3B

4. LaRoche 1B

5. Morse LF

6. Desmond SS

7. Espinosa 2B

8. Suzuki C

9. Lannan LHP

#HARPEROY

Bryce Harper is coming off a road trip in which he went 12-for-24 with six extra-base hits (2 2B, 3B, 3 HR), raising his batting average 11 points along the way. Harper has hit in seven straight games and needs just two home runs to tie Tony Conigliaro for most home runs ever by a teenager (24). 

LANNAN’S CANNON

Coming off a win in his last start, John Lannan takes to the hill against the Phillies for the second time in five days. Including his win last Wednesday at Philadelphia, Lannan has won his last two starts against the Phillies, after going 1-12 in first 15 career starts against Philadelphia.

GET YOUR PHIL

One year ago today (Oct. 1, 2011), the third-place Nationals trailed the first-place Phillies in the NL East final standings by 21.5 games. This year, the two clubs have swapped spots in the standings as Washington holds a 16.0-game advantage over the third-place Phillies. Washington is 14-10 against the Phillies since Davey Johnson became manager, including a 4-1 mark in one-run games. Before going 10-8 against the Phillies in ‘11, the Nationals/Expos had won only two season series from PHI the previous 14 years.

DATE IN DC BASEBALL

October 1, 1924: The District celebrates the Senators, as a crowd of 100,000 lines Pennsylvania Avenue to greet the American League champions in a victory parade. The team visits President Calvin Coolidge, who promises he’ll attend Game One of the World Series against the Giants, at the White House.

- FOLLOW NATIONALS VS. CARDINALS LIVE -

One Last Pitch

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The final homestand of the regular season is here. As the Nationals get ready to take on the Phillies, they stand on the verge of seizing the reign atop the National League East away from their division rivals in what promises to be a thrilling final series. Don’t miss a minute of the action this week at Nationals Park, and make sure you pick up a copy of our final Inside Pitch of the season, featuring Jordan Zimmermann.

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