The holidays came and went, but the holiday season brought little joy to Mudville.
Despite the pleasant distraction of watching the Redskins reach the NFL playoffs, aficionados of the national pastime were still reeling from the Nationals’ ninth-inning, season-ending Game 5 meltdown against the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League division series.
Their healing process began in earnest on Sunday, January 6—during a football game. As a national audience watched with unfolding dread, the Redskins’ coaching staff undermined their team’s chances of winning a playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks, risked the career of their star quarterback, and compromised the future of their franchise—all in one fell swoop—by leaving Robert Griffin III in the game after he was injured and could neither run nor pass. It was an inexplicable decision, only partly attributable to pro football’s macho mentality.
Across Washington, a prayer of gratitude escaped the lips of baseball fans: Thank God for Mike Rizzo and Davey Johnson. In the heat of the pennant race, they had shut down the ace of their pitching staff—despite his protestations—because they believed it was in his, and the team’s, long-term interest. And they willingly took heat for doing it.
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Baseball is a sport obsessed with numbers, and by most statistical measures 2012 was a fabulous year for the Nationals.
Attendance averaged 30,000—in the middle of the pack but much higher than any season since 2005, when Major League Baseball returned to Washington after a 33-year hiatus.
The pitching staff gave up only 3.33 earned runs per game, the fewest in the National League, and notched the third-highest number of strikeouts. The Nats won 98 games in the regular season, the most in the majors. They won their division for the first time.
Those successes translated into individual achievements, including a Manager of the Year award for Davey Johnson and Rookie of the Year for 20-year-old Bryce Harper. Ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg came back from reconstructive surgery to win 15 games; lefty Gio Gonzalez went 21-8 in his first season with the team and finished third in the Cy Young Award voting.
Yet these numbers and accolades don’t come close to capturing the magic of the 2012 season.
“Baseball isn’t statistics,” Jimmy Breslin once observed; “it’s Joe DiMaggio rounding second base.” Joe DiMaggio never played in Nationals Park, but last season fans here got to see Strasburg do his Walter Johnson imitation, shortstop Ian Desmond have his breakout year, and team leader Ryan Zimmerman fight through a shoulder injury to anchor the lineup. Most exciting of all, they watched as Harper turned the baseball diamond in Southeast DC into his personal playground.
You knew this season was going to be special the first week of May. In a nationally televised game, Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels nailed Harper in the back with a 93-mile-an-hour fastball. Hamels has terrific control, so everyone on the field knew he’d done it on purpose. Hamels, as he later conceded, was sending a message: Hey, rookie—you may have been on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but we’re the defending division champs.
Harper sent back a message of his own. After racing from first to third on a Jayson Werth single, he watched as Hamels tossed the ball to first in an effort to keep Werth close to the base. When Hamels did it a second time, Harper broke for the plate, sliding in safely. Stealing home is the most exciting play in baseball, and this was the stuff of pulp fiction.
He wasn’t done, either. Harper singled and doubled in two more at-bats, and he made a diving catch in left field to prevent a run from scoring. If Philadelphia was trying to get a fix on what they were up against in Bryce Harper, they found out.
So did the rest of the Nats, who visibly picked up the pace when their precocious rookie arrived in town. Dramatic comebacks and unlikely heroics became the norm. Every Nats fan had a favorite moment.
July 5: Trailing the San Francisco Giants 5-4 in the ninth, three rookies—Tyler Moore, Steve Lombardozzi, and Harper—all get on base. With one out and the bases loaded, Adam LaRoche hits a double-play ball, but the relay is booted and Harper scoots home with the game-winning run. The Nats pour out of the dugout, surrounding LaRoche, an avid deer hunter, and holding their hands over their heads like antlers.
August 7: The Nats lead 3-2 in the bottom of the 12th inning in Houston. Two are on and two out when Astros first-baseman Brett Wallace blasts one into Minute Maid Park’s outfield. Centerfielder Roger Bernadina sprints toward the fence and leaps into the air, landing behind a pole in the field, wedged up against the fence—and, for a second, out of camera range.
The play is going to end the game one way or another: Either both runners score and the Nats lose or Bernadina makes the play and they win.
Nats television announcer Bob Carpenter has the call: “Bernadina. . . . He’s got it! He made the catch and the game is over!”
“Are you kidding me?” chimes in color man F.P. Santangelo, a former major-leaguer. “I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.”
October 11: With the score tied 1-1 in the ninth inning of Game 4 in the NL division series, Cards right-hander Lance Lynn gets two quick strikes on Werth. Lynn throws two pitches out of the strike zone, trying to get him to chase a bad pitch. He doesn’t. Werth then fouls off six consecutive pitches before Lynn barely misses with a breaking ball. Werth doesn’t bite.
Then, on the 13th pitch, with the count 3-2, Werth hits one over the fence. He charges around the bases, leaping into the arms of his teammates, and the city’s sports bars and living rooms erupt in joy. Washingtonians have just witnessed their first home victory in postseason baseball since 1933.
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My own favorite moment of last season involved a Jayson Werth home run, too, but for that one you have to go back to a meaningless spring-training game in Melbourne, Florida, against the New York Mets.
Space Coast Stadium, where the Nationals train and play in the spring, is only a short drive from my sister Judy’s house, and last year on a sunny March day we sat in the stands with a couple of thousand other fans. Our seats were next to the New York Mets dugout, giving us a front-row seat when Werth hit a first-inning tape-measure bomb over the left-field fence. Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post later calculated that the ball, which reportedly hit Werth’s own truck in the parking lot, traveled 492 feet.
“Hey, coach!” I called out to Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen as he returned to the dugout after calming his pitcher. “That ball needed a flight plan!”
I got an involuntarily smile out of Warthen, and my sister laughed. It was the first time I’d heard her do that in months—the first time, actually, since her son Nathan, my godson—died suddenly at age 20 of a drug overdose.
We are a baseball family, and Nathan was a Boston Red Sox fan, going back to his boyhood in New England. For Mother’s Day a couple of years before he died, Nate took his mom to a tattoo parlor so she could get the same Red Sox “B” on her ankle that he sported. This logo will forever remind her of a great day—and of life’s most painful loss.
Spring comes every year, however, and with it new hopes. Again this March, I took my sister to Space Coast Stadium. She had recently welcomed her first grandson into the world. He’s being groomed to be a center-fielder and has the first name—Jacoby—to prove it. His middle name is Nathan.