By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
MILWAUKEE, July 27 -- Before Monday -- before a market correction on all his bad luck blasted a path into history -- Josh Willingham was merely another middle-of-the-order outfielder who saved his best for the smallest moments.
It was a curious thing, something he couldn't explain. He hit homers at the usual rate. But he collected solo homers, almost strictly, and only the pressure to fix it -- and perhaps the odds of a Vesuvius reversal -- kept growing.
Then, everything changed. Bad luck disintegrated, replaced in a span of two innings by historic fortune and power. In a two at-bat stretch on Monday, Willingham hit two grand slams. The grand slam became Willingham's entrance to history, and naturally, the force behind the Nationals' 14-6 thumping of Milwaukee at Miller Park.
Nobody is owed a spot in baseball's record books, but in a sense, Willingham was almost due for this moment. Entering the night, he had hit 14 homers -- but 12 of them were solo shots. Among the 91 hitters in baseball with 12 or more homers, nobody had fewer RBI. This was a guy hitting .328 with none on, .200 with the bases loaded. Taking stock of it all, Willingham said, simply, "It's one of those things that you can't explain."
So try explaining this: In the span of three swings and two innings against Milwaukee, Willingham hit two grand slams, becoming just the 13th player in baseball history to collect two in a game. The two grand slam performance is rarer than a perfect game. Nobody since Boston's Bill Mueller in 2003 had done it. Hall of Famers like Frank Robinson had done it, and journeymen like Fernando Tatís had done it, and even a pitcher, Tony Cloninger, had done it. They had but one thing in common: For one night, each was exceptionally blessed with power and teammates who helped them maximize it.
"It's something that, when I was coming up to the plate the second time, I knew I had a chance to do it," Willingham said. "Obviously I wasn't thinking about doing it; I wasn't trying to do it. But when the game is over it and you look back on it -- for years to come, when I look back on it -- it's going to be something that will be very special."
It's tempting to simplify Monday's final score like a cartoonish box score: Willingham 8, Brewers 6. But that oversimplifies things. The grand slam is, to an extent, a team accomplish -- situational as much as personal.
"Everything has got to be lined up just right for you," interim manager Jim Riggleman said.
On this night, the Nationals broke from a stretch that had been typified by struggles with runners on base. Against Milwaukee starter Jeff Suppan, Nationals runners reached second base in each of the first four innings but none scored. By the end of the fourth, the Nationals were 0 for 9 with runners in scoring position. All the signs pointed to a long night, especially with Craig Stammen (4 2/3 innings, five earned) leaving pitches high and falling behind hitters.
Willingham's first grand slam, in the fifth against Suppan, gave the Nationals the lead, breaking a 2-2 game. Everything had set up to give him the possibility, too. Suppan was struggling with control, hitting Ryan Zimmerman with a pitch. Adam Dunn, the No. 4 hitter, nearly hit a grand slam of his own, sending a monster blast to the fourth deck in right field. But it just went foul, and Dunn drew a walk, forcing in a run. When Nick Johnson struck out, Willingham had the situation to himself. Bases loaded, two outs. He swung at the first pitch, and drove it to left-center.
The Nationals had a 6-2 lead.
The second grand slam came, again, when Washington needed it. Stammen had allowed three more runs in the bottom of the fifth, and so when Willingham came to the plate in the top of the sixth against reliever Mark DeFelice, the Nationals were again trying to rebuild their lead. Already, they'd gotten a good start. Cristian Guzmán had knocked a two-run double. Zimmerman was intentionally walked. Dunn smoked a ground-rule double to right-center, and then Johnson walked, too.
Again, Willingham had the situation.
He also had the swing.
He ripped an 0-1 fastball from DeFelice well over the wall in left-center, giving the Nationals a 13-5 lead.
"Pretty amazing," Dunn said.
After the game, Willingham was still buzzing. His cellphone had 20 text messages on it. At next glance, it had 15 more. The second home run ball, inscribed, "Second Slam Same Game," was already displayed in his locker. He described each of his grand slams -- the sinker that Suppan couldn't quite wedge on the inside of the plate, the fastball from DeFelice. Both were driving range shots -- blasted, and then drifting down in a gentle, faraway arc. Willingham called it a "defining moment," not just for himself, but for a team that's trying, here and there, to make up for so many darker moments.
"That's the beautiful thing about baseball," Willingham said. "You never know what can happen."