Results tagged ‘ Mike Rizzo ’
After much speculation about how they would handle center field for the foreseeable future, the Washington Nationals answered that question today, acquiring Denard Span from the Minnesota Twins. In exchange, Washington sent Minor League right-handed pitcher Alex Meyer back to the Twin Cities.
“He fits very well for us,” said EVP of Baseball Operations and GM Mike Rizzo of Span. “His skill set is something we have been looking for for some years now. He’s a front-line defensive center fielder and a consumate leadoff type hitter.”
Span is expected to lead off and play center field for the Nationals in 2013, allowing Bryce Harper to shift to a more natural corner outfield spot and Jayson Werth to return to the middle of the lineup. Rizzo cited the Nationals wealth of defensive outfielders, mentioning that all three were capable of playing center field at a Major League level.
“I’m definitely excited, I’m very excited to be coming to Washington,” said span of his trade to the Nats, specifically singling out Harper and Werth. “I’m ready to be coming to a team that is already in place to win. They’re definitely going to elevate my game, just playing alongside them.”
Rizzo also said on Thursday that he has had his eye on Span for a while now, and even saw him play as a prepster at Tampa Catholic High School. He explained that discussions with the Twins have been ongoing for the past three to four weeks, but that they accelerated at the General Managers Meetings in Indian Wells earlier this month.
Span has compiled a career .284/.357/.389 Major League slash line playing almost entirely in center field over the last five seasons for the Twins. He has also stolen 90 bases over that time, including 17 in 128 games last year. Rizzo believes that speed may develop even farther with Span’s move to the more small ball-oriented Senior Circuit.
“We think he’s really going to come into his own as a base-stealer here in the National League,” the GM said, also noting Span’s strong ability to make contact. “He’s one of the tougher guys in the league to strike out.”
The 28 year-old whiffed just 62 times in 568 plate appearances in 2012 while drawing 47 walks. Born in D.C., the Tampa, Florida native was originally selected 20th overall by Minnesota in the first round of the 2002 First-Year Player Draft. After spending his first 10 years as a professional with Minnesota, Span said his change of scenery makes him a little nervous, but more so excited.
“That’s the greatest feeling any ballplayer can have is know they’re wanted,” said Span of Washington’s – and particularly Mike Rizzo’s – desire to acquire him. “I could hear it in his voice, how excited he was to have me.”
With the trade, the Nationals do not give up any Major League talent while acquiring a player in Span who is under contract for the next two seasons with a team option for 2015. Meyer, the return in the trade, just finished his first professional season, which he split between Low-A Hagerstown and High-A Potomac.
“To get a good, established Major League player at Denard’s age with the contract that he has, you have to give up a quality player,” said Rizzo, explaining that it is always a tough decision to part with young prospects, but that it was the right time for the move. “We feel that we have great depth in the Minor League system.”
With tonight’s trade, the Nationals have filled the first missing piece of their 2013 puzzle.
The Washington Nationals enjoyed unprecedented success in 2012, recording the best record in Major League Baseball. The team relied on the contributions of many different players, whom we will catalogue throughout the offseason as we look ahead to the 2013 campaign. Today we break down the remarkable first season of the heart and soul of the Nationals pitching staff, Gio Gonzalez.
When the Nationals sent four prospects to the west coast on December 23, 2011 in exchange for an All-Star but relatively unknown pitcher, some Washington fans were troubled. They had watched their team build steadily through the draft, relying on developing prospects to pull them to the brink of a potential breakout year. If there were any doubts as to the validity of the deal, EVP of Baseball Operations & GM Mike Rizzo put them to bed as best he could just two days later, showing the utmost confidence in his new left-hander by signing him to a five-year extension with options for two more seasons. Soon, the rest of the fan base would come to understand that they had not just acquired a promising young left-hander – they had just landed Gio Gonzalez.
Armed with a lively, mid-90s fastball, arguably the best left-handed curveball in the game, and one of the sport’s biggest personalities, Gonzalez turned out to be just what the talented young Nationals team needed. Slotting into the rotation as a southpaw presence between right-handed flamethrowers Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, Gonzalez immediately gave Washington one of the best young staffs in the game for years to come. And from his sparkling D.C. debut in the home opener (7.0 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 7 K) to a formidable stretch run that saw him win five of his final six games with a 1.35 ERA and notch his first career shutout, the 27 year-old anchored the best staff in the National League. He finished the year with more wins than any pitcher in the game (as well as the lowest home run rate and OPS against), and was squeezed out for second place in the National League Cy Young race.
Gonzalez is signed through the 2016 season, with a team option for 2017 and a vesting option for 2018 that will kick in should he reach 180 innings the year prior. We’ve already written plenty about Gio this season, so relive his memorable 2012 campaign in the articles below, and allow yourself to dream of what may come in the rest of his Nationals tenure.
For better or for worse, Major League Baseball’s top pitching and player awards are not determined the same way. Critics hem and haw over what exactly “most valuable” means when it comes to determining the league MVPs each year. But the Cy Young is simply given to the pitcher considered, objectively, to be the best overall. There is no such thing as the Most Valuable Pitcher Award. For the Nationals in 2012, that’s a shame, as no pitcher was more valuable in the National League than Gio Gonzalez.
We here at Curly W Live are fully aware that wins should hardly be the decisive metric in determining a pitcher’s value, but Gonzalez’s totals were, nonetheless, impressive. The southpaw was the first pitcher in baseball to 20 wins this season, finishing with a Major League-best 21 victories. In so doing, he became the first D.C. lefty to win at least 20 games since Earl Whitehill in 1933, 79 years ago.
But let’s dive into the statistics that really set Gonzalez apart. The Hialeah, Florida native led all qualifying pitchers in either league with a .206 batting average against. He also struck out 9.3 batters per nine innings pitched, the highest rate of any pitcher to throw as many innings (199.1) as Gonzalez did. The 27 year-old lefty allowed just nine home runs all season, for a league-leading rate of just 0.4 per nine innings pitched. Considering that he pitched half his games in the 14th-highest ranked offensive ballpark by Park Factor, those numbers are all the more impressive next to Mets ace R.A. Dickey’s (Citi Field, ranked 23rd) and Clayton Kershaw’s (Dodger Stadium, 25th).
Gonzalez was particularly strong in August and September as well, when the team needed him to step into the role of the top pitcher in the rotation. After earning his second consecutive All-Star bid, Gonzalez led the Nationals pitching staff down the stretch. He won eight of his final 10 starts while fashioning a 2.00 ERA over that span to help Washington win its first-ever NL East crown. He was even stronger in his final six regular season outings, going 5-1 with a 1.35 ERA (6 ER/40.0 IP) holding opponents to a .171 average.
While Gonzalez won’t be able to celebrate with any official hardware like Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper and Manager of the Year Davey Johnson, he’ll no doubt take solace in the fact that he led his team to the playoffs, something to which neither of his fellow Cy Young finalists can lay claim.
At nearly 70 years of age, there isn’t much that Davey Johnson has yet to accomplish in the game of baseball. He has already won a World Series as both a player and a manager, one of just five living men to do so. Coming into 2012, he had skippered three different franchises to the playoffs. And yet, he managed to notch a whole bevy of firsts in his first full season at the helm of the Washington Nationals. For his efforts, he was rewarded with the second BBWAA Manager of the Year Award of his career.
He guided the franchise to a Major League-leading 98 wins, 17 more than the previous franchise high, set back in 2005. That success translated into the franchise’s first NL East title and Washington D.C.’s first postseason berth in 79 years. Mind you, of course, that while nobody else predicted such unprecedented success from the club, Johnson calmly and confidently told the baseball world exactly that – his team would be in the playoffs, all the way back before Spring Training began.
Despite a ton of early-season injuries to a good portion of his starting lineup, Johnson’s club either led the NL East or shared its top spot for all but 10 days this season. When the dust had settled, they owned the best run differential in Major League Baseball, outscoring their opponents by 137 runs over the course of the year.
Johnson, along with Executive VP of Player Personnel and GM Mike Rizzo, made the decision to keep Ross Detwiler in the Major League rotation at the end of Spring Training. That, along with the healthy returns of Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann and the additions of Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson gave the skipper the National League’s best rotation ERA at 3.40. Once fully healthy, his offense went on to produce 194 home runs, second most in the league, establishing both franchise (1969-‘12) and D.C. baseball (1901-‘71, 2005-‘12) single-season marks.
Johnson registered the seventh 90-win campaign of his managerial career and joined the legendary Billy Martin as the game’s lone skippers to take four different teams to the postseason. Since shifting from a consulting role and returning to the dugout to assume the Nationals managerial helm on June 27, 2011, Johnson’s Nationals are 138-107 (.563). Just how good has he been at guiding his young squad? In that same time span, only the Braves (139) have won more games among NL teams.
Among those to manage 1,000 or more games, Johnson’s career winning percentage (1,286-995, .564) ranks second among all living managers behind his former skipper, Earl Weaver (.583). He will have one more season to improve upon those impressive credentials, having agreed to manage the 2013 season before retiring from the bench, back to the Nationals front office in 2014.
Congratulations, Davey. We can’t wait to see what you have in store for your grand finale.
My intent was to post my own blog on the eve of hosting Game One of the NLCS. But the offseason came rather quickly, and in an especially cruel fashion.
I want to sincerely thank Nationals fans near and wide for their support during what was in so many ways a DREAM season. Your words and notes of support meant so much, not only to me, but my family.
The roars heard in conjunction with Jayson Werth’s Game Four homer and the record crowd (45,966) for Game Five will long be remembered in these parts, but the 2012 season was so much more.
We, of course, began our journey together in the Grapefruit League. We survived an opener at Wrigley Field that appropriate for the Windy City. We Took Back The Park from the Phillies. We swept a series at venerable Fenway Park. We won The Pine Tar series from Joe Maddon’s Rays. We witnessed The Shark defy gravity in Houston.
We watched D.C.’s favorite teenager come of age right before our eyes. We watched our primary off-season acquisition exceed every expectation by winning 21 games and do it all with a smile. We watched our Opening Day starter win 15 games and provide us with the cushion needed to hold off Chipper’s 94-win Braves. And yes, in early September, we shut him down for all what we firmly believe to be the right reasons.
We won the NL East, arguably the toughest division in baseball.
We ended D.C.’s 79-year postseason drought.
We posted MLB’s best record.
We won 100 games.
We made a ton of history.
And, just as importantly, made a fleet of memories to keep us warm this offseason.
I want to acknowledge the efforts of Mike Rizzo, Davey Johnson, our coaching staff and especially the players themselves. What a fantastic season from top to bottom!
Setting aside the outcome of the World Series for a moment, I can honestly say that there is not one franchise in our game that I would swap futures with.
The 2013 season will not be without its own unique challenges. We are quite aware that there are no guarantees in this game. But I like where we are standing as a ballclub.
Let’s talk again soon, perhaps during MLB Winter Meetings in Nashville in early December.
Thanks again for an unforgettable journey…
“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.