Nationals vs. Brewers: Wilson Ramos lifts languid offense in return to lineup

Toni L. Sandys/THE WASHINGTON POST - Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos (40) crosses home plate after hitting a go-ahead three-run home run in the eighth inning of Thursday’s game against Milwaukee. It was Ramos’s first game since May 15.

For Wilson Ramos, the past two years had consisted mostly of work and waiting and things he no longer wants to think about. He was kidnapped outside his home in 2011. He tore two ligaments in his right knee in 2012. Ramos strained his hamstring twice this season, badly in mid-May. He remained through it all a part of the Washington Nationals’ bedrock, the catcher without whom they are not whole.

Thursday, on a gorgeous Fourth of July afternoon, he returned after 44 games on the disabled list. He walked to the plate in the seventh inning of a tie game. His sister Milanyela had come from Venezuela and sat in the Nationals Park seats. Finally, only Ramos’s radiant present mattered.

(Toni L. Sandys/THE WASHINGTON POST) - A flag in the shape of the United States is unfurled in the outfield during the singing of the National Anthem before Thursday’s game at Nationals Park.

(Toni L. Sandys/THE WASHINGTON POST) - Drew Storen (22) reacts after giving up a two-run home run to Carlos Gomez in the seventh inning.

Ramos swung at the second pitch he saw, hopped out of the batter’s box and admired the ball as it hurtled over the left field fence. The three-run home run lifted the Nationals to an 8-5 victory and completed his five-RBI, 3-for-4 comeback performance, which pushed the Nationals back above .500.

The crowd refused to stop cheering after Ramos disappeared into the dugout. Teammates Ian Desmond and Jayson Werth yelled at him, “Go out there!” Ramos had only watched other players take curtain calls. As Chad Tracy stepped out of the batter’s box, Ramos climbed the dugout steps. He raised his right hand, still covered in a white batting glove, over his head.

“It was a great moment,” Ramos said. “I have to keep working. A lot’s happened in my career. A lot of bad moments, a lot of good moments. I have to learn from the bad moments and enjoy the good moments.”

The Nationals could celebrate the latest with him. Ramos had bailed out reliever Drew Storen, who squandered a three-run lead in the top of the seventh with a second straight implosion. Making his second career start, right-hander Taylor Jordan allowed two runs over 52 / 3 innings, walking none as he yielded six hits.

Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano protected the lead with zeros in the eighth and ninth, Soriano picking up his 22nd save. The Nationals’ reworked lineup had given ample support, but it took Ramos, in his first game since May 15, for them to win it.

“You see what the guy has gone through, more than anybody can imagine,” Storen said. “That’s why we were excited to have him back, because he comes up in those big spots. He does big things.”

The Nationals have waited all season for something to spark them. They thought Bryce Harper’s return Monday would provide it. Maybe, they hope now, it will be Ramos. In Ramos’s place, an overworked Kurt Suzuki hit .214 with a .255 on-base percentage and a .275 slugging percentage. Suzuki carries the credentials of a starter, but the Nationals clearly consider Ramos, who will start again Friday, their top catcher.

“This is basically the first time in a long time we had our whole lineup in there,” Manager Davey Johnson said.

Ramos’s presence steadies the Nationals beyond what his three injury-plagued seasons of experience would suggest. In the early innings Thursday, Jordan shook off a few of Ramos’s pitch selections. In the dugout, Desmond told Jordan, “Trust him. He knows what he’s doing.” Jordan nodded. He did not shake off Ramos again.

“I’m happy for this day, for me, for my family, for my team,” Ramos said. “They were waiting for me, for my return. I’m happy, happy for this day.”

At about 9:30 Wednesday night, Johnson experienced what he referred to later as “an epiphany.” He called Desmond and told him, “Desi, I’m changing something.” Desmond would be moving to second in the lineup, and Jayson Werth would bat sixth.

“I didn’t even explain it to Werth,” Johnson said Thursday morning. “He’ll figure it out that I’m an idiot.”

The Nationals’ offensive performance the previous four days had driven Johnson to the brink of delirium. They scored 23 runs in 17 innings between Sunday and Monday. The next two games, they scored one combined. “My Ouija board is just – I’m having a problem with it,” Johnson said.

He considered tossing names in a hat and picking the lineup at random. He also thought about trying to get ejected, “just for old time’s sake or something,” Johnson said. He settled on the Desmond-Werth swap, preferring Desmond’s energy at the top of the order.

The shakeup produced immediate results. Desmond and Werth went a combined 6 for 7 with two walks, four runs, three stolen bases and one RBI. Ramos drove in Adam LaRoche and Werth with a bases-loaded, two-out single in the sixth inning, his second hit of the afternoon after going 0 for 10 on a rehab assignment.

“That pitching must’ve been awful tough down at Potomac,” Johnson said.

The Nationals had extended their lead to 5-2, and Johnson had his bullpen set up the way he likes –Storen to Clippard to Soriano. Storen had yielded four runs in the eighth Tuesday night, but Johnson kept faith.

And then Storen imploded again. With one out, pinch hitter Yuniesky Betancourt smoked a 2-2, hanging change-up out to left field for his first homer since May 17. With two outs and a runner on second, Storen jumped ahead of Carlos Gomez with two strikes and tried to finish him off with a slider. The pitch stayed at the letters, and Gomez drilled it deep into the left field seats. Storen had surrendered another three runs, and the Brewers had tied it at 5. Storen’s ERA rose to 5.40 as he walked off the field, for the second straight game, drenched in boos.

“Storen’s trying to trick people instead of just making his pitches,” Johnson said. “Maybe that’ll be a good learning game.”

The jeers had stopped echoing when Werth singled up the middle with two outs in the bottom of the inning. Anthony Rendon followed with a walk. Up came Ramos, facing right-handed reliever Brandon Kintzler, who had allowed one home run in 35 innings all year, none to right-handed batters.

In the dugout, Johnson turned to bench coach Randy Knorr and said, “He’s already had a good day. He may as well hit one out here.” Ramos told himself to wait for a good pitch to hit, and take a walk if it never came. Ramos took a slider for ball one. Kintzler tried another slider.

“I said, ‘Give me that one,’ ” Ramos said.

Ramos crushed it. The crowd roared as Ramos trotted around the bases, blocking out, for a moment, whatever had come before.

“Right now, I don’t want to think about it,” Ramos said. “It happened in the past. I want to look at the present and the future.”

 
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