Monday, April 04, 2005

October 3, 2005

Not an open date anymore; Atl (Hampton, 13-9) at Was (Hernandez, 18-12)

Nats down Bravos in 163rd game, earn division title

By Lenny McGillicudy,
The Hardball Phantazein

This wasn't supposed to happen.

The Washington Nationals, successors to a team no one cared about and themselves a team few even in their own market could follow on television, were destined for mediocrity in 2005---at best.

Everyone knew this as a matter of fact, seemingly, except for one man. The team's finances are in disarray. It still has no real owner, in part because its current, nominal owner, Major League Baseball, has delayed in deciding on one, as it delayed and procrastinated every step of the move from Montreal to Washington. For much of the season, the team's television announcers---Mel Proctor and Ron Darling---presented every-other-game to a ghost audience, as MLB scrambled to arrange carriage deals on cable and satellite providers.

Following some moves general manager Jim Bowden made to acquire a few mid-market veterans, presumably to negligible effect, not a cent remained to add to the roster, MLB said. The Washington Nationals, though an exciting novelty to a city starved for over three decades without baseball, were a moribund team.

Everyone knew this as a matter of fact, seemingly, except for one man: Frank Robinson.

At the end of spring training, Robinson told a group of reporters:

What do I consider a good year? Over .500. A considerable number of games over .500 -- not one game over .500. I think this club is capable of winning at least 90 games."

Many people laughed at such a bold outlook; indeed, considering the timing of the proclamation, no doubt many writers ascribed it as an April Fool's Day joke and moved on.

How bad were the Nationals supposed to be? That question is open to some debate; however, in light of the Expos' 67-95 record in 2004 and the impression that the rest of the National League East division (not including the Nats) bulked up in the offseason, a specific win total did not matter much. Sixty-seven wins, 72 wins, 75 wins? What did it matter? The team would finish last, anyway; that much was certain.

In fact, Baseball Prospectus, an analytical group of writers that prides itself on researched, reasoned evaluation, went so far as predicting that the 2005 edition would be so horrid that it would turn District and area residents off baseball:

At this rate, by the time the season is over the Nationals may have demonstrated how quickly and thoroughly interest in baseball can be snuffed out. The hugely expensive stadium plan could start to tumble, taken down by countless angry citizen actions like Gulliver being pulled down by the Lilliputians.

But, though no one knew it at the time, Robinson was serious.

The team started unevenly but respectably, always staying within sight of .500. The pitching, led by staff workhorse and eventual hero Livan Hernandez, carried the hitting. The latter was weak in the early going, as third baseman Vinny Castilla, brought in from the rarified air of Colorado to provide right-handed sock, struggled with nagging injuries and ineffectiveness. Ryan Church, a 26 year-old rookie centerfielder, took some time to adjust to major league pitching. Robinson toyed with various lineup constructions, sometimes hitting Brad Wilkerson lead-off and sometimes dropping him in the order, where his power could be better served. By his own admission, Robinson required himself to exhibit much patience with the offense.

Eventually, and well-timed with the promotion of young Brendan Harris to replace an injured Castilla, the offense clicked. The Nationals were only two games short of break-even at the all-star break, and some in the media---though only some at this point, most being obsessed with what the Yankees and Red Sox have for breakfast---began to take notice. None of the four major players in the NL East (Atlanta, Philadelphia, Florida, and New York---in that order) had separated from the pack---or from Washington, for that matter. The Nationals stood only 7.5 games behind the leader at the break; Wilkerson served as the team's lone representative.

In mid-August, the Nationals set out on a grueling, 13-game, four-city road trip. The Nats took two-out-of-three from both Houston and Colorado, but the events to take place in Philadelphia and New York would transform the team's prospects entirely. Washington swept all four games in Philly, the first and last of which were extra-inning, nail-biters. The final game, on August 18, took 16 innings and almost six hours to complete. The next day (or, rather, the same day), the Nats were at it again: the first game against the Mets took 12 innings to complete. Washington's fatigued bullpen, however, was rejuvenated after Hernandez tossed a complete game victory. The Nats completed the successive sweep on Sunday the 21st.

In just under two weeks, Washington had won 11 of 13 games, all on the road.

The success of this road trip catapulted the Nats right where no one expected them to be: in the middle of a pennant race. Washington had surpassed New York and stood tied for third with Florida, 4.5 games behind division leader Atlanta and only half-a-game behind Philadelphia for second. (They were also six games out of the wild card slot.)

MLB, which had not anticipated any additions at the July 31 trading deadline, opened the purse strings for one deal. On August 23, the Nationals acquired a lefthanded reliever, Ron Mahay, from the Texas Rangers. No further increase in salary was allowed. Apparently, commissioner Bud Selig did not take the surge seriously. After all, the Expos were themselves on the fringes of the wild card race on Labor Day 2003 before fading in September.

After the road trip, seven games remained against Atlanta, six against Philly, and seven against Florida. (The Mets faded badly after the mid-August sweep.) Twenty games versus teams separated by less than five games. The Nationals knew they had a shot.

Robinson took his best shot, too. The Nationals lost two-out-of-three at Atlanta from Aug. 29-31, with one game remaining in the series on Sept. 1. Robinson persuaded Bowden to call up fleet centerfielder Endy Chavez before the final game; rosters had expanded to 40 available slots, and Bowden set about filling some key areas, including a bullpen that had been taxed heavily in August.

Chavez was a curious cause for Robinson to champion, though. Chavez sulked after being demoted in late March. Church capably took Chavez's slot and set out on a Rookie of the Year-quality season. When Church landed on the disabled list in early June after aggravating a groin pull, Chavez was given a second chance. Actually, it was more of a final chance. Chavez started nine games and went 6-for-34 with one walk. He was demoted, and reporters huddled outside of Robinson's office purportedly heard him tell Bowden, "I'm done with that kid."

Yet, Chavez was the stimulus of a September stretch run. Trailing by one run in the top of the ninth, Nick Johnson drew a one-out walk. Robinson pinch ran for Johnson, a notoriously slow runner, with Chavez, who was also caught stealing in both of his June attempts. On a two-and-one pitch to Jose Guillen, Chavez raced for second base. Johnny Estrada's throw sailed high of the mark and bounded into center. Chavez bolted for third and subsequently scored the tying run when Guillen lifted a fly ball to medium-range left field.

In the eleventh inning, Chavez slapped a grounder deep into the hole between third and short. Shortstop Rafael Furcal, probably with no play, muffed the ball, and Chavez was aboard. He scored two batters later on Terrmel Sledge's double. Chad Cordero, in his second inning of work, nailed down the victory.

The Nationals were within two games of first place, alone in second.

They split six games at home with Florida and Philadelphia, which---like the Mets a few weeks before---had begun to fade. September 9-11 brought Atlanta to RFK Stadium, for a final (perhaps?) match-up with the Nats. The Braves carried a three-game lead into the series.

The Nationals swept, and none of the games was close. The FOX "A-Team" of Joe Buck and Tim McCarver (who would have thought they would be announcing a September game in Washington?) were wowed during the Saturday game. The pressure shortstop Cristian Guzman and Chavez (getting a rare start) put on Atlanta's defense inspired McCarver to quip, "These Nats are sure pesky . . . like a bunch of gnats." (Buck silently groaned.)

The Washington Nationals spent their off-day on Sept. 12 knowing they were tied (tied!) for first (first!) in the NL East. Atlanta had not lost a division (except, perhaps, for the strike-shortened 1994 season, to the Expos, ironically) since 1990; they had run the table on the division's present configuration, and quite easily in a majority of cases. Most people, in making their preseason predictions, just wrote off the division (despite the quality of the competition), remarking, "I'll pick Atlanta to win until Atlanta actually loses." And here were the Washington Nationals, the team few cared about and fewer actually watched on television---set to supplant the Braves.

For the next three weeks, the Nats and Braves matched each other just about game-for-game. With just two exceptions, a win was answered by a win, and a loss was answered by a loss. Neither team played exceptionally, and on the morning of Friday, Aug. 30, the NL East stood as follows:

1T Atlanta, 87-72 ---
1T Washington, 87-72 ---
3 Florida, 85-74, 2GB
4 Philadelphia, 81-78, 6 GB
5 NY Mets, 77-82, 10 GB

Three teams mattered still. Florida, if it swept Atlanta and Philly took just two-of-three at Washington, could have forced a playoff of its own against Washington. A sweep by Philly would give the Marlins a chance to steal the division outright. (Atlanta and Washington were four games out of the wildcard spot, mathematically eliminated, which meant that the NL East was an "old-fashioned" pennant race.)

Two one-game playoff possibilities existed: Atlanta versus Washington, and Florida versus Washington. MLB officials conducted the coin toss and determined that Washington would host Atlanta or travel to Florida.

But a coin toss is a matter of luck. While some might insinuate that three mere games are as susceptible to luck as three coin tosses, Robinson would have none of that. He continued to press his team harder and farther.

Luck or not, the Nationals stood on the precipice of defeat twice in two days over the weekend. (They won handily on Friday night.) Both times, they had prior, scoreboard-watching knowledge that the Braves had handled the Marlins with extreme dispatch. Both times, the Nationals won the game with a dramatic home run in their last at-bat.

On Saturday night, the Nationals trailed 6-4 heading into the last of the ninth. Billy Wagner, 39-for-43 in save opportunities, was entrusted with preserving the lead and, though of little consolation to the Phillies, placing the Nationals in an absolute might-win-and-hope-for-help scenario the following afternoon. Leading off the inning, Nick Johnson drew a nine-pitch walk; he fouled off two 0-2 pitches before working the count in his favor. Brendan Harris then chopped a grounder to third. Johnson was forced out at second, but a hustling Harris was slightly quicker than Placido Polanco's turn at the keystone. Jose Vidro then lashed a single to right. Charlie Manuel faced the choice of pitching to Guillen or walking him to face Wilkerson a lefty hitter. Manuel eschewed the platoon advantage and pitched to Guillen. One a one-one pitch, the spontaneous enthusiasm Mel Proctor's call was reminiscent of several occasions when he announced, up the road, in a separate market, for the 1989 Baltimore Orioles,

Guillen hits this one A TON to deep left field . . . WAY back . . . and it is GONE!!!

with his voice cracking on the last syllable.

It is hardly apt to characterize a walk-off homer on the 162nd game to force a one-game playoff "anti-climatic," but just about everyone in the press box, if you believe the testimony afterward, knew it was coming. And, sure enough, it did. The situation from Saturday roughly reprised itself, except the game was tied and, with first base open, Manuel decided to let Wagner face Wilkerson instead.

Wilkerson tugged a high fly that barely cleared the right field wall. His teammates swarmed the field. Rumors began circulating that Church re-aggravated the groin pull amid the celebration. It is confirmed fact that Washington Post baseball columnist Thomas Boswell, disregarding press box decorum, pulled his groin while jumping up-and-down in elation.

The victory meant everything.

Yet, it meant nothing.

And that is how we came to be here, at RFK Stadium, for one final regular season game, one over the limit somehow.

Old RFK Stadium was, however improbably, resplendent. Contrary to dire pronogstications like that from Baseball Prospectus quoted above (way above), the stadium was packed. President Bush, himself---as we all know---a baseball fan and former owner, deemed the occasion worthy for his presence. Nearly 50,000 fans cheered when he threw a perfect strike to Brian Schneider.

And then the stadium rocked like only it can. It literally rocked.

Your typical storybook ending would involve home runs, lots of long, dramatic home runs, rising deep into the night. Maybe one to win the game, even. On this night, one ball left the park---by Chipper Jones of the Atlanta Braves.

Jones's gigantic blast wasn't enough, though---not nearly enough.

The Nationals strung together hit-after-hit and walk-after-walk against Braves' starter Mike Hampton, who entered the game with 13 wins and a 4.32 ERA. Through four innings, the Nationals had five singles and three walks, but only one run. They trailed 2-1, thanks to Jones's homer.

But a rickety pitcher will oft give way, and Hampton gave way with substantial force in the fifth. Two walks and a Jose Vidro double tied the score. Another walk finally chased Hampton. Wilkerson followed with a sacrifice fly and Vinny Castilla---forgotten by all except Robinson, who valued Castilla's experience and ability to hit lefties---pounded a double off the left field wall. Guzman followed with his own double, bringing home Castilla, and Schneider chased Guzman home with a single. All told, six runs crossed in the fifth inning, and the Nationals held an insurmountable 7-2 lead.

They led 8-3 heading into the ninth. Robinson, perhaps caught in the moment or perhaps honoring his workhorse, left Hernandez in to start the inning. Hernandez retired one batter, but yielded a token rally. He left with the score 8-4 and runners on first and second, having thrown 133 pitches. Closer Chad Cordero induced a pop-up on his first pitch and then struck out Andruw Jones swinging on a dynamic 3-2 fastball.

A celebration ensued, but it was more business-like than that of the previous two days---or countless others during the course of the season, for that matter. Maybe it was exhaustion, or maybe it was the hope that the journey was not yet complete. Nevertheless, if the Nats themselves held back, then the fans duly augmented their own excitement. Perhaps, even accounting for what an on-field accomplishment this truly was, the moment might that much more to the fans who had yearned so long for such elation.

And now it was theirs.

In his press conference after the game, Robinson said all the perfunctory things: He was happy but the Giants are next, as in tomorrow. There's the long flight, and then there's dealing with a rested team that blew past its competition once Barry Bonds hit his stride. They paced the Senior Circuit with 97 victories, beating the Dodgers by four games. They hit well, they field well, they have their own shut-down No. 1 starter in Jason Schmidt. They're experienced. And so forth.

Then Robinson said something truly interesting. A writer asked him if he ever thought the Nats would be in this position, playoff-bound. Robinson responded, "Hell yes." Then the writer asked if Robinson thought they were really this good. Again, he responded, "Hell yes." Then the writer asked if he considered his team lucky, and Robinson said with a laugh, "Hell yes."

The writer then asked how Robinson could reconcile the last two, seemingly contradictory statements. "Damnit, man," Robinson said with a slight grin. "I've got some ballgames to worry about."

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