Commentary

Nationals quickly becoming relevant

It's been a June to remember for a Nats team that's no longer in NL East basement

Originally Published: June 23, 2011
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

There are games that are so compelling -- and so potentially meaningful -- they require a star next to them in case they lead to something important, not just in a team's season, but perhaps even for the future of a franchise. Tuesday night might have been one of those games for the Washington Nationals. Down by four runs in the ninth inning, they scored five runs, the last three on a walk-off home run by rookie catcher Wilson Ramos, to beat the Seattle Mariners 6-5.

The victory moved the Nationals into third place in the National League East and one game under .500. Modest achievements, but for the Nationals, they represent significant progress. For third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, it was more than one stunning victory; it was one of the many signs pointing toward a bright future. Zimmerman has been through the worst of the Nationals' 6½-year history; several years ago after yet another loss, he said, disgustedly, "Five minutes after the game, guys were in the shower not caring that we had lost again. Aren't you supposed to care for five minutes?" Zimmerman is 26, in his sixth full season, the best player on an emerging team, and his frown has turned to a smile.

"When we began this year," he said, "I thought that this was the first team I've been on here where we have good baseball guys on our team. Not that we had bad people before, but this is the first team I've been on where we care about winning, we care about getting better."

[+] EnlargeWilson Ramos
Brad Mills/US PresswireNationals rookie catcher Wilson Ramos has hit three of his six home runs this season in June.

The Nationals ran off eight victories in a row until Sunday when they lost to the Orioles. Then on Tuesday, they were down 5-1, with two outs in the ninth inning and runners at second and third. Jerry Hairston Jr., one of those "good baseball guys" to whom Zimmerman was referring, singled home a run. Michael Morse, the hottest hitter in the National League, singled home a run. Then Ramos, the catcher of the future in Washington, hit a 432-foot home run to left-center field. It was only the second time in the past 22 years that the Nationals/Expos had won a game that they trailed by at least four runs entering the ninth inning. The crowd of 21,502 at Nationals Park went wild. Washington shortstop Ian Desmond called it "the most emotional turnaround in any game I've ever played. That could turn a lot of things around."

The organization started to turn when Mike Rizzo became the unofficial general manager in March 2009, then Jim Riggleman took over as manager on July 14, 2009. Together, they have changed the culture, and the roster, getting rid of attitude cases such as Elijah Dukes and replacing them with veteran players such as Hairston and Alex Cora. They drafted Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper with the No. 1 pick in the draft in consecutive years. Now the Nationals have a roster and a farm system that some other franchises covet.

"Damn right, they're good," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "Look at all of their talent."

It starts up the middle, as it should. Ramos has supplanted Pudge Rodriguez as the No. 1 catcher, a mini-demotion that Rodriguez has handled gracefully because he knows what everyone else knows: Ramos, 23, is a very good young player who is only going to improve. He's proficient at calling a game, he's a good receiver and he has great power. The Nationals acquired him from the Twins just over a year ago for reliever Matt Capps, who helped the Twins make the playoffs. But by making that trade, the Nationals now have their catcher for the next decade.

The double-play combination is among the best in the game when it comes to youth and athleticism. Danny Espinosa, 24, a switch-hitting second baseman, has 13 homers and 45 RBIs. And, Zimmerman said, "he can really pick it." So can Desmond, 25, who weighs 215 pounds; has tremendous range, especially to his left; a great arm; and, according to one National, "has learned not to take a bad at-bat into the field." Desmond did that a lot last year, when he made 34 errors. He has made nine errors this season.

"It was not my at-bats. I am doing things mechanically the right way this year," Desmond said. "I know what I'm doing now."

"Our defense is unbelievably better than it was last year, which makes our pitching better," Zimmerman said. "When you give a team 30 outs a game, it makes it really tough."

The Nationals are tied for the fourth-fewest errors (40) in the National League, a year after tying the Pirates for the most errors (127) in the NL. The defense at first base has been significantly better with Adam LaRoche replacing Adam Dunn, who left via free agency and, one National said, "cost Desmond eight to ten errors last year." LaRoche is now out for the season with a shoulder injury, but Morse has done an excellent job on defense in his place.

"We didn't have a team meeting about it, it was more a personal thing," Espinosa said. "You have a Gold Glover at third, we had Adam LaRoche until he got hurt, you had Desmond and I up the middle. With those guys, you don't want to be the one to hurt the team."

That improved defense has greatly aided the pitching staff. The rotation has been a huge surprise, posting a 3.85 ERA compared to 4.61 last year. And the bullpen has been terrific, compiling a 2.91 ERA, fourth-best in the league. Setup man Tyler Clippard -- whom one manager described as "the guy with the funny glasses that pitches all the time" -- has a 1.90 ERA and 54 strikeouts in 42 2/3 innings. Closer Drew Storen, 23, has 18 saves and has found his stride after pitching coach Steve McCatty told him this spring to use his fastball more instead of overusing his breaking ball.

The Nationals are still short on offense, but with Zimmerman back after missing 58 games with an abdominal tear, they have started scoring more runs. They have gone 10-1 with Jayson Werth in the leadoff spot, an idea Werth first mentioned in spring training, and a move the Nationals considered early in the season. But the key has been Morse, 29, who began his career in 2005 as a shortstop and opened the season as the every-day left fielder. Since he became the every-day first baseman May 22 after LaRoche's injury, he has more homers (11) and more RBIs (32) than any player in the NL.

"With him, it has been as good as it gets," Espinosa said. "He is so strong, when he makes contact, he is so big, the ball flies off his bat."

Said Morse: "I know it sounds stupid, but to me, it's just getting an opportunity to play. I have done nothing different. I have changed nothing. But I have always believed in myself."

Ryan Zimmerman Our defense is unbelievably better than it was last year, which makes our pitching better.

-- Nats third baseman Ryan Zimmerman

The team believes in Riggleman. He has managed 1,485 games in his big league career, and the only situation in which he was given the pieces to contend, he guided the Cubs to the playoffs in 1998. When he replaced Manny Acta in July 2009, the Nationals were 26-61, but they went 33-42 the rest of the way. He has run the club in a tougher, sterner way, built on fundamentals and playing the game hard and properly. In Riggleman's first full year as the Padres manager in 1993, he took Phil Plantier off the field for not running out a fly ball that ended up dropping, yet Plantier had just arrived at first base. Riggleman doesn't allow for a lack of hustle on his team, and he's not afraid to confront a player if need be.

This year, pitcher Jason Marquis (7-2) was angry about being pulled from a start an inning away from qualifying for a victory (he had pitched four innings, allowed eight hits and five runs). Marquis tore up the runway with a bat, and he and Riggleman almost came to blows. Soon after, Werth -- who is signed for seven years, $126 million -- made public comments about changes that needed to be made with the Nationals. They seemed to be directed at Riggleman, but after the two met behind closed doors, Werth said they hadn't been directed at the manager. All seems well now with the manager and Marquis, and the manager and Werth, yet Nationals ownership has not picked up Riggleman's 2012 option for $700,000, which is strange given the job he has done helping shape the franchise.

Under Riggleman and Rizzo, the pieces are starting to fit, and there are more on the way. Strasburg, who likely will miss all of this season after having Tommy John surgery last year, will return, perhaps as good as ever, in 2012. Harper, who is tearing it up as expected in Class A ball, is in place to be the every-day right fielder in 2013, but the Nationals are being cautious with him. He is so talented and so cocky, the Nationals want to make sure he pays his dues on the way to the big leagues -- that he plays at every level of the minor leagues to, if nothing else, show the veterans on the team that he isn't being given preferential treatment.

On Wednesday night, the night after their tremendous come-from-behind victory over the Mariners, the Nationals won again, 2-1, to make it to .500 (37-37). It is yet another milestone for them, another reason for Ryan Zimmerman to look down the road and really like what he sees.

"I have made it clear that I would like to play my whole career here," Zimmerman said. "Sometimes those things work out, sometimes they don't. But I think it would be really cool to play 15 or 20 years in the same place and say that I was there when things were not so great, and then get to a point where we're contending every year. We have only seen the tip of the iceberg here."

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and is available in paperback. Click here to order a copy.

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