Results tagged ‘ Mike Rizzo ’
“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.”
These are the words of A. Bartlett Giamatti, from his classic essay “The Green Fields of the Mind,” which warrants a full read, whenever you are ready to digest the entirety of the end of the baseball season.
Even if you are not ready, though, not ready for baseball to come to such a sudden, screeching halt after riding an express train into October, do not run from it, do not abandon your feelings. Own this moment, as it is now an inescapable part of your team’s history, one that will, over time, earn you respect from fellow Nationals fans and opposing fans who have been through the same. It will make you stronger next year, and in the years after that. When the champagne comes again, it will taste sweeter.
More so, remember the many other aspects of this season that will define it more than the final inning. In a season that began with modestly hopeful predictions, the 2012 Nationals won the most games in baseball. In the fever of the pennant race, that fact was reflected in home-field advantage, but some of its impact was no doubt overlooked in the moment.
As a young, hungry team and fan base, our time began on Opening Day and continued all summer long, as the Nationals held down first place longer than any other division winner, exceeding even the most optimistic of expectations. When the year began, Mike Rizzo explicitly stated that his goal this year was “to play meaningful games in September.” Instead, he and Davey Johnson guided the team into October.
The Nationals played, by far and away, the three most meaningful games in the history of the young franchise in Washington this week, and went toe-to-toe with the defending World Series champions in front of over 135,000 rabid, red-clothed fans. The city and the fan base showed a National audience that they have arrived, that baseball in Washington is a force to be reckoned with.
Fans ignited their NATITUDE well before this week, though, as crowds averaged over 30,000 per game for the first time since baseball returned to the Nation’s Capital in 2005. Nationals fans proudly took back the park in May during a pivotal series vs. the Phillies. And though the division rival fans to the north chirped mightily all season long, the Nationals came through on the field, wresting the division crown away from the five-time division champs.
In a season full of signature moments (which we will relive in more thorough detail throughout the coming weeks), the division clinch during the season’s final series may not have been the most dramatic, but it was certainly the most meaningful, representing a shift in the NL East balance of power.
Any opposing fan who believes this was a one-year fluke is, at best, blissfully oblivious to what has been built in Washington. With a roster overflowing with young talent just beginning to grow into itself, this is merely the end of chapter one, with many volumes remaining to be written in the coming years. So wear your Curly W’s proudly today and hold your heads up high throughout the winter. Baseball will spring anew again next year, and we will all be a year wiser, a year stronger, and ready to – in the words of Teddy Roosevelt – strive valiantly once again.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Around 1:05 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon, after the Nationals take the field for their first home playoff game, the first in the franchise’s annals since the Montreal Expos in 1981, and the first in Washington’s Major League history since 1933, one song will blare out from the ballpark’s speakers, the chosen song of the home nine’s starting pitcher. After everything the Washington fan base has abided to get to this momentous day – from decades of postseason absence, to franchises twice leaving the District, to finally, a winning team being built from scratch to deliver this day – the song is appropriately entitled: “Waiting.”
You know the world is waiting…
Waiting on 103
For the Nationals fan base, it is waiting on Game 3. Their designated starter, the man who will take the hill with this music pumping behind him, will be looking to reestablish the team’s dominance at home, facing off in what has become a best-of-three series in D.C. between the upstart Nationals and the defending World Champion St. Louis Cardinals, following a successful split of the first two games on the road. Now Washington will look to Edwin Jackson, who was a key part of that championship team against whom he will pitch on Wednesday, to deliver as he has done all year long.
We need some motivation,
So won’t you come motivate me?
When the Nationals made the surprise free agent signing of the offseason, inking Jackson to a one-year deal to bolster their starting rotation, many were caught off-guard. An already full rotation was now actually overflowing, prompting the eventual decision to start John Lannan at Triple-A to begin the season. And while it could be argued that Jackson was brought in to do what he has already done – post a double-digit win total and rack up nearly 200 innings in the middle of the rotation – he was really signed by EVP of Baseball Operations and General Manager Mike Rizzo with Wednesday’s Game 3 in mind.
“You have to treat every inning like it’s the ninth inning,” stressed Jackson at his press conference Tuesday of the added pressure of starting in the postseason.
On a team full of rookies and other young players and a rotation with no postseason experience of any kind, Jackson is the elder statesman, the veteran, the man who has been to the top of the mountain before. He has twice pitched in the postseason, twice in the World Series, for two different teams in two different leagues. He has taken on the Red Sox and the Phillies, the Brewers and the Rangers, and made three starts as a part of that 2011 St. Louis team that won it all. It is only fitting that the same team, a year later, now stands in the Nationals way as they attempt to advance to the NLCS.
Thanks to that experience, Jackson is able to keep a clear mind about the task in front of him, to keep everything in perspective.
“No one has to be a hero,” he explained. “We just need to go out and play the game we know how to play.”
Last year, after the Cardinals had lost Game 3 of the NLDS to the Phillies and found themselves down, two games to one in the best-of-five format, they handed the ball to Jackson with their season on the line. The strong righty allowed two runs in the first inning, but shut down the potent Philadelphia offense (one that had scored 11 runs in the first game of the series) the rest of the way en route to a 5-3 victory. St. Louis went on to win Game 5, and of course, the rest is history.
I done told y’all, and told y’all, and told y’all again
Play the game, play the game, play the game yeah to win
There will also be a measure of revenge available for Jackson, who struggled through his toughest start of the year in St. Louis earlier this month. However, lest Cardinals fans jump to quickly to the conclusion that they will find the same kind of success against Jackson here in Washington, they need only look back at Jackson’s start on August 30, in which he allowed a single unearned run on just four hits, striking out 10 over 8.0 masterful innings in an 8-1 Nationals victory over St. Louis. That contest was part of a four-game set in which Washington pummeled the Cardinals to the tune of a 31-14 score over the series, winning three times.
I ain’t lose, I don’t lose, I ain’t lose, never lost
Always on, keepin’ on, always on, never off
With emotions likely to be running high in the first Major League Postseason game in D.C. in 79 years, it’s hard to think of anyone better than the calm, collected Jackson taking the hill for the Nationals.
“What did I tell you?”
It was less of a question than an expression of joy, of mutual appreciation for a plan well-thought and well-executed, celebrated by one of a thousand hugs in a night of jubilation in the clubhouse, on the field, and again in the clubhouse as the Nationals clinched their first-ever National League East title. The words were spoken by Nationals EVP of Baseball Operations and General Manager Mike Rizzo to Max Gonzalez, father to Gio, the left-handed ace of the staff who, immediately after coming to Washington in a late-December trade, signed a five-year extension with his new ballclub, lending a mutual security to both parties for the foreseeable future.
It was a contract Rizzo was happy to finalize, locking up a proven, All-Star southpaw to complement righties Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann in the Washington rotation. But even Rizzo was probably taken off-guard by just how good Gonzalez has been in his debut season in the Nation’s Capital.
The first pitcher in baseball to 20 wins, he finished the year 21-8, surpassing his previous career-best mark by five victories. He did so by pairing his mid-90’s fastball with one of the best curveballs in the game, occasionally mixing in his changeup to keep hitters off-balance. In so doing, he limited opponents to a .206 batting average, the lowest in either league among qualifying starters. He also struck out 9.3 batters per nine innings, the highest rate in the league of anyone who completed as many innings as Gonzalez (199.1). However, he has some competition in the NL for the rank of top arm and the Cy Young Award that comes with it, namely Mets knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.
Dickey’s is a great story, and he has turned in a remarkable season for any pitcher, much less one who has undergone the trials and tribulations that have led up to this point in his life. But he is not the best pitcher on the best team, nor is he the most unhittable. Those titles belong to Gonzalez, whose left arm accounted directly for 21 of his team’s Major League-leading 98 victories. The Nationals went 3-0 in the only games that Gonzalez started and did not receive a decision, finishing 24-8 overall in his outings.
Gonzalez also allowed a meager nine home runs all season long, three fewer than the next closest pitcher who surpassed the 170-inning mark. Dickey, meanwhile, surrendered 24 longballs, nearly two-and-a-half times the rate at which Gonzalez allowed them.
Gio also finished strong, going 8-2 with an even 2.00 ERA (15 ER/67.1 IP) over his final 10 starts to lead his club into the playoffs as the top seed. Dickey, meanwhile, was solid but unspectacular over his last five outings (2-2, 3.28 ERA) and was beaten by Gonzalez head-to-head in New York on September 11.
Sometimes overlooked, thanks to the collective dominance of the staff – owners of the lowest ERA in the National League – Gonzalez has become the leader of the rotation and has more than earned his spot as Washington’s Game One starter for the NLDS. While the lefty is always happy to deflect the credit to his catcher, his offense, and his defense behind him – and while the Nationals have bigger goals in front of them – the Cy Young Award would be an appropriate honor for the breakout season of the league’s best pitcher.
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.
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.”
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.
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?
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
It’s only appropriate, on this last day of summer, that we can officially begin to discuss postseason baseball in Washington D.C. no longer as a “likelihood” or a “probability,” but as a reality. That’s the thing about the baseball season – a hot start is great, like the one the Nationals stormed out to by winning 10 of their first 14 games, but in the scope of a six-month marathon, it means very little. All the excitement of holding down first place is fantastic fun, but it does not mean anything until this time of year. There are no cheaply won postseason spots in our sport, and only sustained success over the duration of the spring and summer will lead to those meaningful games in October that Mike Rizzo, Davey Johnson and everyone around the organization have been talking about since Spring Training.
Yes, the National League East remains undecided, with a combination of eight Nationals wins and/or Braves losses still needed to determine the division crown. Beyond that lie the fight for home field advantage through the various rounds of the playoffs. These Nationals have taken nothing for granted so far this season, and you can be sure they won’t start now. Nevertheless, one indelible fact remains: there will be postseason baseball in our Nation’s Capital for the first time in 79 years.
“What’s the big deal?” an exuberant Johnson jokingly questioned of the press corps, as fans watching his post-game press conference in the adjoining Lexus Presidents Club cheered his arrival.
The Nationals almost clinched their postseason spot Wednesday night in dramatic, surprising fashion, coming from nowhere to overcome a six-run, eighth-inning deficit, only to fall to the Dodgers, 7-6 in the ninth. While that would have been a game for the ages, long remembered by those who stuck it out to the end, it would have supported the script that is often preached, but not necessarily accurate, about this year’s Washington club, that all of this sudden success is a surprise. In actuality, it is the culmination of years of building the right way, from the ground up, and simply watching the pieces come together at the Major League level all at once. In a sense, it was much more fitting that the history was made thanks to a well-pitched, well-defended game, trademarks of a team that Washington fans have fallen in love with this season.
Drew Storen gave the game and the fans their endearing moment to cherish, as he faced the daunting middle of the Dodgers lineup – Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez – holding a three-run lead in the ninth. The cushion would turn out to be more than enough. Storen painted a perfect, outside corner fastball to freeze Kemp, Wednesday night’s hero. He then handcuffed Gonzalez, the powerful lefty’s bat waving helplessly over a disappearing changeup. Finally, he blew away Nationals nemesis Hanley Ramirez – who owned a career .339 (147-for-433) mark with 27 home runs against the Nats coming into the at-bat – on a nasty slider to end it, pounding his mitt once and high-fiving catcher Kurt Suzuki in celebration.
“I didn’t even think about it until I saw it on the scoreboard afterwards,” said Storen of the clinching moment. “I was just having fun. The crowd was real into it. If you’re not out there having fun in that situation, you shouldn’t be out there.”
And though Storen provided the coup de gras, seemingly everyone chipped in. Ryan Zimmerman opened the scoring with a booming double to the left-center field gap, scoring Bryce Harper in the third inning. Danny Espinosa had an RBI-double of his own, and came in to score on a Suzuki sacrifice fly, the culmination of a hard-fought, professional at-bat. Ian Desmond and Jayson Werth each had a pair of hits, with the shortstop stealing one bag and the outfielder swiping a pair. As it has been all year with this team, you never know who the hero will be, and there were many of them Thursday night.
Ross Detwiler, meanwhile, continued to impress, and continued to show why this team has a real chance to make a deep October run. With six nearly flawless innings, in which a solo home run and a pair of singles were the only bumps in an otherwise smooth road to his career-best 10th victory, he quieted the powerful Dodgers lineup to put the Nationals in position to clinch.
“It was great seeing all of them on their feet,” the lanky lefty said of the crowd. “It really gives you the chills a bit to see how into it all of them were.”
Detwiler has consistently gone about his business, and though he is sometimes overshadowed by his teammates, there is no hiding his 6-3 record and 2.76 ERA in 13 starts since the All-Star break. He also became the fourth Nationals starter to hit double-digits in wins on Thursday, with Edwin Jackson sitting on nine victories heading into his start tonight against Milwaukee.
Speaking of those pesky Brewers, they are suddenly hot, and have clawed their way back into the race for the second National League Wild Card spot. In fact, the final four series on the Nationals schedule – Milwaukee, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Philadelphia again – all bring teams fighting for every game, their postseason lives at stake. Each game will be its own challenge, as the Nats try to wrap up the division. Those battles begin again tonight. But for today, at least, allow yourself to soak in the reality.
This is happening.
As all Nationals fans undoubtedly know, last night the ballclub clinched D.C.’s first postseason berth since 1933.
Mike Rizzo, Davey Johnson and the entire clubhouse will be quick to remind us that this is just the first step in an October journey. And they could not be more right. That said, there is no harm in taking a moment to reflect on just what has happened here.
I imagine that the far-ranging emotions we are all feeling are equal parts wonderful and euphoric, and everything between. Think about the span of generations this postseason clinch affects.
Take my family for instance. My father, Ted Lerner, remembers the 1933 World Series. He was eight years old at the time. I think his long-term vision on how to build a franchise has set up this moment for all of us to enjoy. Most of my youth was spent following the exploits of the expansion Senators in the 1960′s. My three children grew up in the era where there was an unfortunate baseball void in Washington, D.C., and could only go to games at Camden Yards like a lot of us.
As diverging as my family’s perspectives are, how different is this moment in time for the youngsters in our area that were raised on Nationals baseball by Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. Even within this modern grouping, you can see the differing perspectives.
But come the first weekend in October, that will change. This town, which is predicated on dueling political philosophies, will unite to witness postseason baseball in D.C. for the first time in 79 years. We’ll stand, clap and cheer together. Being together, united behind one cause, is something that this town is not used to, especially in October of an election year. But now we know it is coming and I cannot wait!
Some other quick thoughts after an historic night and what still lies ahead:
- I alluded to it earlier, but I could not be more proud of Mike Rizzo and the job he has done. Mike is truly the Executive of the Year in my book. But let’s remember that this ballclub was not built in the last 12 months. Mike arrived in D.C. in the summer of 2006 as our first hire and has poured his soul into the job. And the results show.
- When thinking about Mike and the job he’s done, my mind naturally segues to the Gio Gonzalez trade and how well that has worked out. Throughout Spring Training, I told anyone who would listen that Gio was special. He had “it.” Now his name is on the tip of everyone’s tongue when it comes to Cy Young discussions. He’ll take another shot at his 20th win on Saturday afternoon against the Brewers. I know it means a lot to him and all Nats fans.
- With a postseason berth now secure, everyone will rightfully turn their focus to the Braves and the NL East crown. As important as that is, don’t lose sight of the race for the best record in MLB. Remember, whoever posts the best record in the NL gets home field advantage during the seven-game NLCS. Think about how special that would be for our city, our team and our fans.
Please enjoy the last two regular season homestands and the pennant race. Come out to Nationals Park during the next few weeks to support the boys. They deserve it, and every game matters right now.
Ever since Larry Wayne Jones, better known around the baseball world as “Chipper,” announced his plans to retire following the 2012 season, his final campaign has become something of a celebratory sendoff in every city in which he has played. Wednesday night’s game in The District marked the final regular season game that he would play in Washington, a place where he certainly made his presence felt since the franchise moved to town. Jones hit the first-ever home run in the inaugural game at Nationals Park in 2008, a fact often overshadowed by Ryan Zimmerman’s indelible game-winning blast later that same evening. Not forgotten, though, especially by Nationals pitchers, is that Jones’ 23 longballs against Washington trails only Ryan Howard and Hanley Ramirez for the most by any single player.
Prior to Wednesday night’s contest, Jones was honored in a pregame ceremony on the field, one that included a video tribute from former teammates Mark DeRosa and Adam LaRoche, who were joined on the field by Zimmerman. They presented Jones with the third-base bag from Monday’s matchup, as well as a framed, signed photo with DeRosa and LaRoche. Nationals EVP of Baseball Operations and GM Mike Rizzo joined the party to present the framed bat with which he hit the first home run at the ballpark.
Prior to the gift-giving, the video below played on Nats HD, and when it reached the :30 mark noting that Jones finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting in 1995, Zimmerman turned to Jones, an incredulous look on his face, and asked, “Who won?” That the answer was Hideo Nomo is of no real importance for this story – all that matters is that Zimmerman couldn’t believe the honor had gone to anyone else.
Carroll Rogers, who covers the Braves for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and who has seen every team’s ceremony for Jones to date this season, called the tribute, “The most personal pregame sendoff ceremony yet.” Jones was clearly moved, and shared hugs with his old teammates, doffing his cap to the crowd of fans behind the visiting dugout before taking the field.
Of course, even though Atlanta won the finale, the Nationals did send the Braves away with another series defeat and another game to make up in the standings from when the three-game showdown began. Washington’s 10-5 head-to-head record against their rivals to the south has comprised nearly the entirety of the six games of separation between the clubs as we enter the season’s final five weeks. And while it would be great for baseball to see Jones get one last shot at the postseason, the Nationals will be far happier to see him get it as part of a Wild Card team.
While the Nationals back-to-back extra-inning wins on Monday and Tuesday night over the Houston Astros provided plenty of drama and fodder for water cooler chatter, they also left Washington’s bullpen dangerously thin entering the third of a 10-game road trip. So much so, in fact, that Davey Johnson sent starter Edwin Jackson down to be on standby as an emergency reliever, should Washington need one. Thankfully, the Nats didn’t need any bullpen help at all Wednesday night, as Gio Gonzalez stepped up with perhaps his biggest all-around performance of the season. Not only did Gonzalez toss his first career nine-inning complete game, he also belted his first Major League home run, a two-run shot that proved to be the difference in a 4-3 victory.
Gonzalez made a splash in his first home start back in the home opener on April 12, twirling seven spotless innings and logging his first Major League hit. If that game set the tone for the All-Star’s season, his outing Wednesday night may have provided its defining moment. Reunited for the first time in a game with Kurt Suzuki, his old catcher from Oakland, the 26 year-old southpaw reminded Nationals fans of exactly why Mike Rizzo traded for him this past offseason. Finishing what he started, Gonzalez scattered nine Astros hits and two walks over his 117-pitch outing as he became just the second Nationals starter this year to go the distance after Jackson did so all the way back in April.
As if that wasn’t enough, Gonzalez also delivered the biggest performance of the game on offense. After the Nationals made two quick outs to start the second inning in a 1-1 game, Suzuki came to bat. Astros starter Armando Galarraga plunked the Nats backstop on the rear with his first pitch. Gonzalez stepped up immediately to pick up his teammate. He turned on Galarraga’s very next pitch and belted it deep into the top of the Crawford boxes in left field for a two-run shot, giving Washington a lead it would never relinquish.
Although the left-field seats in Houston are notoriously easy to reach, the tater was a no-doubter, and would have been a number of rows deep at any ballpark in the league, including Nationals Park. See for yourself.
As a result, the Nationals staff now holds a unique distinction. Three Washington starting pitchers – Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, who toes the rubber in Thursday’s series finale – have each hit home runs and have each been honored as National League Pitcher of the Month. With the start Ross Detwiler is off to in August (1-0, 1.29 ERA in two starts), that got us thinking: which is a more likely accomplishment for this Nationals staff: another Pitcher of the Month award, or another home run?
Just about every night, I remind myself, be careful what you wish for.
For years now, we watched with silent envy as teams played meaningful games late into the season. We were thrilled to play a role — any role — in the season’s outcomes, to affect the standings from the outside.
Some call it playing the “spoiler.” Whatever they called us, it fit at the time.
But when everyone went home at night, all we could do was picture and dream what a pennant race was like from the inside.
Well no longer. Friends, we are in the midst of a real pennant race. And, bonus, this one appears to have started a bit earlier than most.
Honestly, my early impression is that it is equal parts pleasure and agony.
As if the late innings of a tight game are not grueling enough, let me tell you that I literally cringe every night about 7:10 p.m. upon checking the out-of-town scoreboard for the first time. Not much changes either during my 62 subsequent glances, as I wait for the scores to flip or turn over at inning’s end.
Honestly, this is so fun and much more invigorating than I imagined during all those blank nights. This is daily drama that only our sport can provide.
The ups and downs … they are amazingly addictive, but as we all know, the nightly outcomes cannot always work in our favor.
And it is in those moments that I remind myself … be careful what you wish for.
*It has been a busy week with the additions of Kurt Suzuki and Cesar Izturis. Suzuki has made an immediate impression in the clubhouse — he is so upbeat and personable, it is as if he’s been with us for 3-4 years, not 3-4 days. I know he’s still feeling his way, trying to learn about our pitchers and their various strengths. But our fans should feel comfortable with not only his talents behind the plate, but also in a one-on-one setting.
*A little bit was made about the Suzuki acquisition being some sort of commentary on the play of Jesus Flores, especially since Wilson Ramos went down in early May. I can assure everyone that Mike Rizzo does not feel this way. This was an opportunity to acquire another front-line catcher. Mike was understandably nervous about the worst case scenario: losing Flores to injury. This trade makes us better and deeper. And as we’ve seen all season long, our depth is a big part of what has set us apart.
*I know I wrote about the agony that comes with a pennant race, but one recent high point was Saturday night’s big comeback win over the Marlins. That was as loud as I have heard our ballpark. The only other moment that could potentially stack up was Ryan Zimmerman’s game-ending homer to open up Nationals Park on March 30, 2008. As up-to-the-task as Danny Espinosa was in Saturday night’s critical at-bat, I genuinely believe that the fans primarily fueled that six-run eighth inning. We’ll need much more of this in the next 2 months.
*I do not think it is any exaggeration to think that Adam LaRoche should be a part of any NL MVP discussion. At the very least, he is the NL Comeback Player of the Year. He carried us in April and has never let up. He leads all big league first basemen in home runs with 23. Yep, that’s one more than even Albert Pujols (22).
*I’d also like to welcome Jayson Werth back to the active roster. And he is not just back and working himself into shape. Rather, he is helping us win games. Wrist injuries are probably the most disruptive ailments that can plague hitters, and for him to come back and to have already raised his batting average above the .300 mark? It is a remarkable testament to his will and determination. His body’s ability to heal quickly is something to behold.
*I’d be remiss if I did not mention the many contributions of our rookies: Bryce Harper, Steve Lombardozzi and Tyler Moore. Go back to Saturday. Bryce, Steve and Tyler accounted for half of the runs in the aforementioned six-run eighth inning. Some say the best thing about rookies is that they become second-year players. Well, in my mind, the best thing about these rookies is that they are not going anywhere any time soon.
I hope to see everyone during our next homestand. Remember, the next homestand includes a big 3-game series against the Braves. I’ve had friends tell me that this might be the biggest baseball series in D.C. since the 1933 Fall Classic. This is what it’s all about.