Results tagged ‘ Sunday Night Baseball ’
Years from now, when we look back at the turning point in the history of the Nationals franchise on the field, we may well pinpoint a three-day stretch in early May of 2012. After a hot start to the season, Washington hosted its bitter rival, the five-time defending division champion Philadelphia Phillies, in a much-anticipated weekend set in the Nation’s Capital. With the Take Back the Park campaign in full swing in the stands, the series became known as NATITUDE Weekend. The hometown nine responded on the field, winning in walk-off fashion in the opener, then riding Jayson Werth’s mammoth, three-run home run to a blowout victory on Saturday afternoon.
But while NATITUDE Weekend was the larger turning point in this budding NL East rivalry, the first inning of the series finale provided its signature moment. With the game airing on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball – the first such primetime national telecast since the first game ever played at Nationals Park in 2008 – the eyes of the baseball nation were fixed on Phillies ace Cole Hamels as he tackled his first run through the Washington lineup. After two quick outs, he faced 19 year-old Bryce Harper, batting third for the first-place Nats in just his eighth Major League contest. Hamels promptly plunked Harper in the back on the first pitch of the at-bat – an act he would later admit was intentional – sending the rookie to first base. It was a seemingly harmless price to pay for his “message.”
But when Werth singled to left field, Harper motored around second and tore for third, right in the face of left fielder Juan Pierre, who could do nothing to stop him. After the next batter, Chad Tracy, fell behind 1-2 in the count, Hamels lobbed a pick-off throw to first base and Harper measured out a long secondary lead from third, behind the left-handed hurler’s back. When Hamels repeated his check on Werth, once more casually easing the ball over towards first, Harper took off for home. First baseman Laynce Nix had no recourse to prevent the inevitable, his futile throw to the plate arriving behind the phenom’s slide. With his first career steal, Harper became the first teenager to swipe home since Ed Kirkpatrick in 1964. In so doing, he brazenly defined NATITUDE and set the visceral tone for a season that would end with Washington’s unseating of Philadelphia as champions of the National League East.
Two up, two down. The Nationals have done everything the rowdy crowds at Nats Park could have asked for so far this weekend, coming from behind for the second game in a row to beat the rival Phillies, this time by a 7-1 score. Jayson Werth’s game-changing, two-out, three-run laser beam into the visiting bullpen in the fifth inning will be the moment everyone remembers from this contest, but fans would be remiss to overlook the huge performances by Gio Gonzalez, Rick Ankiel and Chad Tracy.
The Phillies offense got to Stephen Strasburg for a pair of home runs in Friday night’s game, but had no such luck against Gonzalez on Saturday afternoon. In fact, Philadelphia managed just four hits, scoring once in seven innings against the Nationals left-hander. Gonzalez struck out seven in another sparkling performance and now leads the National League with 41 punchouts on the season. He also improved to 2-0 in three starts at home, where he has allowed just nine base runners in 21.0 innings of work, striking out 22 and posting a 0.43 ERA.
Ankiel, meanwhile, has very quietly caught fire. He turned in his second consecutive three-hit performance to open the series, raising his average to .309 for the season. With the range and arm he possesses in center field – and if the Nationals continue to get this kind of offensive production from him – Ankiel could be a vital piece for the team throughout the 2012 season.
Tracy provided the final bit of support on Saturday, a two-run blast in the bottom of the seventh inning to put the game on ice. It was the second home run of the season and the second in as many days for the lefty, who has found himself starting at first base in the wake of Adam LaRoche’s absence from the lineup the last few games.
Over the first two games of the series, the Nationals have pounded out 29 hits, following up on their 14-hit performance Friday night. They have now out-hit the Phillies 29-11 through the first two games of the series. While the Phillies can claim some injury woes of their own, all the Nationals have accomplished, it should be noted, has happened without the help of their top three offensive threats – Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Morse and Adam LaRoche.
“They’re short-handed,” said manager Davey Johnson after the game. “We’re short-handed, maybe more than them. This shows that we can compete with them.”
It certainly does. The Nationals will go for the sweep in front of a National audience beginning at 8:05pm on Sunday, as Nationals Park hosts ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball for the first time since the park opened in 2008.
“It should be exciting,” said Johnson, of the nationally televised affair. “I don’t have to give any motivational speeches.”