Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Annals of the Game...

In honor of the World Series which begins tonight in Houston, here is a piece I wrote five years ago for a baseball website that never got off the ground, but maybe someday. It was my overview of one of the teams that has to some minds stunningly made it into this year's Series, the Washington Nationals. Some things have not changed since the piece was written, the Nats still haven't won a World Series, in fact until this year they had never won a playoff series. And their first baseman, Ryan Zimmerman who made his MLB debut on September 1, 2005 with the Nationals and has played his entire career with the team, is still there, highly unusual in this day and age.

Some things have changed of course, the team that plays on the north side of Chicago, has indeed made it to the game's promised land since this was written, they did it in 2016.

Unfortunately I never got around to writing about the Houston Astros who had their own long streak of futility until they won their very first World Series in 2017.

Given all that, I'd have to say I'm rooting for the Nationals this year but the thing I'm rooting for the most is that they make it to a game seven, in my mind the greatest event in all of sports.


OVERVIEW - WASHINGTON NATIONALS: You may believe that it is impossible to condense every human experience imaginable into a brief moment of time, say about 6 hours and 23 minutes, but I know of 44,035 souls who would beg to differ. Those are the folks who braved less-than-ideal conditions in National's Park in Washington D.C. on the evening of October 4th, 2014 to watch a baseball game. That was game two of the National League Divisional Series between the Nationals and the San Francisco's Giants which ended in the 18th inning after Giant first baseman Brandon Belt put the Giants up for good in the top of the inning, hitting a solo home run off of Tanner Roark. The Nats came back the following game but lost the series in game four in San Francisco, marking the end of yet another frustrating year that began with so much promise.

Baseball fans in Chicago may think they've cornered the market on frustration and futility; 88 years elapsed between the White Sox last two World Series titles and as everybody knows, Chicago's other team hasn't been to baseball's promised land since 1908.

Granted, fans in our nation's capital haven't had to wait quite as long as Cubs fans, yet. Still, several generations of Washingtonians have entered and left this world since the last time a Washington team participated in, let alone won a World Series. There aren't too many around who can remember when Walter Johnson took the mound in 1924 in an unusual relief appearance in the eighth inning of game seven against the New York Giants with the score tied at three. "The Big Train" pitched four scoreless innings into the 12th when, with the benefit of two Giant errors and a miss-played ground ball, the city of Washington saw its first and only World Series championship. Calvin Coolidge, the President of the United States at the time, was also at the game:

That Senators team would make two other World Series appearances: the following year, 1925, and then in 1933. Aside from those three brilliant seasons, the team more often than not languished in the bottom half of the standings in the American League, inspiring the quip from Charles Dreyden which lingered through the two major league teams that would bear the name Washington Senators:

Washington, first in war, first in peace, last in the American League.

After the first Senators moved west to Minneapolis and became the Minnesota Twins in 1961, an expansion team began operation in Washington and carried on the name as well as the losing tradition. That team moved to the Dallas/Fort Worth area and became the Texas Rangers in 1972. Washington D.C. would be without a major league baseball team for the next 33 years.

The club that would become today's Washington Nationals began life in 1969 as the Montreal Expos, the first major league baseball team to be located outside the United States. The Expos didn't have any more success on the field than either Senator club, making only one playoff appearance in their 36 years in Montreal, although they did make a serious run during the strike shortened 1994 season when the World Series was cancelled..

Despite being a city with a strong baseball tradition, (Jackie Robinson began his storied career in "organized baseball" there), Montreal is first and foremost a hockey town. The mediocre Expos who played in the "The Big O," the concrete mausoleum that was built for the 1976 Olympics, floundered. In 2001, Major League Baseball came to the conclusion that it would be best for its own good to contract, and that two teams, one from each league would fold. The Expos and coincidentally the first Washington Senators, the Twins, were the clubs scheduled to get the axe. As such they would have been the first teams int he Modern Era to have been eliminated from the. It took a court injunction in Minneapolis to force Major League Baseball into honoring its contract with the city and keep the American League franchise intact and in the Twin Cities. The National League Expos were kept alive only to keep parity between the leagues. That team became the property of MLB and would find itself in Washington in 2005.

Playing their first few seasons in the old football stadium due east of the Capitol Building named after the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the Nats would finish their first year in D.C. with a surprising 81-81 record. Unfortunately that would be their high water mark for six years. Late in that years marked the debut of their stalwart third baseman Ryan Zimmerman who had a splendid rookie year and quickly became one of the team leaders. But he was plagued with injuries in 2008 when the team lost 102 games. Fans thought things couldn't get any worse but the following year, the Nats lost 103 games. There was a silver lining to all that futility as the Nats were awarded the first pick in the first round of the amateur draft for two years in a row. They made good use of those picks. In 2009 the Nats selected pitcher Steven Strasburg. The following year they selected Bryce Harper, a catcher and outfielder.

Strasburg was one of the most touted pitching prospects as a collegiate athlete from San Diego State University under the tutelage of the great Tony Gwynn. Known for his blazing fastball and brilliant control, Strasburg's big league debut with the Nats was one of the most anticipated in history. In that game on June 10, 2010 against the Pirates, he fanned 11 batters, just one short of the MLB record for strikeouts pitched in a debut game. He walked no one.

Unfortunately all those 100 mph fastballs that Strasburg is capable of took their toll. Just one month after his big league debut, he found himself on the DL with an inflamed shoulder. He came back the following month but after pitching three games, he was diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament that would require "Tommy John surgery" and 12 to 18 months of rehabilitation. Strasburg came back to the bog leagues in August of 2011 and pitched brilliantly. But the doctors and coaches wisely made the decision to treat Strasburg with kidd gloves given his condition.

From Las Vegas, Harper, a five tool player, was a phenom at even an earlier age than Strasburg. He earned a GED while in his sophomore year in high school, making him eligible for the amateur draft. By 17 he was enrolled in college and already drafted by the Nationals. His big league debut came on April 28, 2012 at the tender age of 19 as he was called up to fill the spot vacated by the injured (again) Ryan Zimmerman. Harper got his first big league hit and RBI in that game. He finished the year with a .270 batting average, an on  base percentage of .340, 22 home runs, and 59 RBI and was awarded the National League Rookie of the Year Award.

That 2012 season was the year all systems were go for the Nationals. The pitching staff featured Strasburg, looking as strong as ever, Gio Gonzalez who was obtained in a trade with Oakland, and Nationals' veteran Jordan Zimmerman who was drafted by the team back in 2007.
Position players in addition to Harper and Ryan Zimmerman included infielders Adan LaRoche, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinoza, and outfielders Mike Morse and veteran Jayson Werth.

Injuries continue to plague the team yet they got off to a great start and never dipped below .500. The team broke a dubious streak on July 30 when they took over sole posetion of first place in their division, marking the first time that a Washington MLB team held such a place of honor since 1933. Another was broken on Sepember 20 when the Nationals clinched a spot in the playoffs, also the first time since 1933. They finished the season with the best record in baseball, 98-64.

With ten fewer wins, the St. Louis Cardinals, the winners of the National League Wild Card, faced the Nationals in the NLDS. Altough he wasn't injured and in fact playing very well, the Nats' manager Davey Johnson took the unprecedented step of announcing that his best pitcher, Steven Strasburg, would not be available to pitch in the 2012 post season. It was a prudent but very controversial decision. The teams split the first two games in St. Louis and did the same with the next two in Washington. The Nats were just three outs away from winning the series and a chance for the National League pennant with a 7-5 lead over the Cards in the top of the ninth in the deciding fifth game of the series. But St. Louis came storming back with four runs that inning and just like that, the end to another frustrating year of Washington baseball.


OK That was then, this is now, the Astros are the favorite to win the series but it's baseball and anything can happen. Go Nats!

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