Wilson Ramos: Nationals catcher is back, hoping for no more stops

Wilson Ramos is one of those players who got caught in no-man’s land, a guy who is a part of a team’s great achievements, but not entirely along for all the ride. Last fall, when the Washington Nationals won their first division championship and made their first postseason appearance, Ramos was recovering from two knee surgeries, looking on from rehab as his team — and particularly his pitching staff — made history.

The enormity of last season’s accomplishments was evidenced Monday by the new banner over the scoreboard — NL East Division Champions — and by a buffet of hardware arrayed at home plate. There were plaques for rookie of the year, manager of the year, executive of the year, there were gold gloves, silver bats and probably even some bronze baby shoes. The 2012 Nats seemed to have won the baseball version of EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony), with the exception of that spiky World Series trophy.

It must have been bittersweet for Ramos, who has not exactly been drowning in good luck the past 18 months. In November 2011, he was kidnapped while visiting family in his native Venezuela, and the Nats — not to mention Ramos — endured some harrowing days until he was freed by government troops.

You would think karma would owe Ramos after such a frightening experience. Instead, last May 12, while chasing a passed ball against the Reds in Cincinnati, he tore up his knee. Earlier in the game, he had hit his third homer, but that would be the final highlight of his season. He had knee surgeries in June and July to repair his right ACL and a torn mensicus, and while the Nats were back-slapping and champagne-swigging in September, he was rehabbing, which is never as fun.

Monday, Ramos showed no rust behind the plate. First and foremost, he called and caught a shutout. In the seventh, Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton hit a one-out double down the left field line, then Placido Polanco moved him to third with a single. Rob Brantly lined out to left field, and any notion Stanton might have entertained about testing Bryce Harper’s arm was quickly snuffed by the left fielder’s laser throw to Ramos. Meantime, Polanco was caught off the first base bag, so Ramos threw to Adam LaRoche, who threw to second baseman Danny Espinosa, who threw back to Ramos when Stanton tried to sneak home. You have to write pretty small to squeeze 7-2-3-4-2 into your scorecard. “That was a good one,” Ramos said.

He also went 1 for 2 with a walk in the Nats’ 2-0 victory, and following an afternoon of squatting behind the plate on a lovely day that quickly turned cool and breezy, Ramos showed no ill effects.

“My knee feels beautiful, strong,” he said. “During the rehab I work hard, and I lose a couple pounds to help. My knee feels good, I just keep working and get healthy.”

The Nats’ pitching staff did fine without Ramos in 2012: finishing with a major league-best 98 wins, a 3.33 ERA that was second only to Tampa Bay’s 3.19, tied for fourth in saves, fourth in strikeouts, and so on. Jesus Flores moved from backup to starter — and played his way out of the starting lineup. As of Aug. 4, he had thrown out 5 of 48 base runners and was hitting .221. The date is significant because on Aug. 3, the Nats acquired Kurt Suzuki from Oakland, and he wound up catching 43 of the Nats’ final 57 games.

But that’s not to say that Ramos wasn’t missed. Pitchers and catchers develop strong bonds; they have to know each other’s strengths and foibles. A catcher has to know when his pitcher is struggling and what to say and when to say it, or what not to say and when not to say it. A pitcher has to know how a catcher positions himself, how he holds his glove, how he calls a game. It’s a crucial dynamic, and it means that Ramos was missed last year, playoffs or not.

“I’m just happy for him after what happened last year,” said reliever Tyler Clippard, who pitched a scoreless eighth inning Monday. “We could all see how hard he worked to get back to this point, and it’s fun for him to get the start today and get out there and do well. It was fun to watch.”

Fun didn’t begin to describe it for Ramos. For a catcher, a knee injury can be devastating, even with the vast improvement in surgical options. Monday had to be a relief as well as a good time.

“For me, today, I feel like that was my first game in the big leagues,” he said. “I came back from the surgery, that was a hard surgery for me. I’m very excited to be behind the plate again and help my team. I love this team.”

The feeling is apparently mutual.

For Tracee Hamilton’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/hamilton.

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