By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 1, 2009
As a parting gift, the Washington Nationals delivered pleasure -- no complications. The last scene of the 81st and final home game of the season was unlike any moment that preceded it, perfect and delirious, the one-minute attempt to undo a forgettable year. The manager said, "There's no way I can explain how good a feeling that is." And the guy who took the last swing said, "It's like everything I've ever dreamed of in the big leagues."
The Nationals, with Wednesday's 7-4 victory against the Mets, won't see Nationals Park again until April, and by then, both the team and its expectations will have a different feel. Until then, the Nationals can cherish the final flashing scenes of an otherwise dreary season. Justin Maxwell at the plate, two outs, bases loaded, closer on the mound. Nationals down one run. Everybody standing. Count full.
In the ninth pitch of the walk-off grand slam at-bat, Francisco Rodriguez, the $37 million reliever, threw a 92 mph fastball to a 25-year-old rookie who'd entered only one inning earlier as a pinch runner. Maxwell's parents, watching from the suite level, shared a quick prayer. Maxwell just tried to put the bat on the ball.
A liner sizzled toward the first row of the left field stands.
Outfielder Angel Pag?n jumped, extending his mitt.
For a half-beat, nobody in the stadium knew if the ball was in Pag?n's mitt or the front row.
"It sounded so good off the bat," said Austin Maxwell, Justin's father.
"I didn't know it was a homer until you saw everybody [in the bleachers] jumping up and down," mother Kathy said.
"I think a walk-off is like the best thing in sports, personally," Maxwell said. "One at-bat. One memory. One win. So many emotions going through you. It was surreal, it was awesome."
As Maxwell rounded third base, he tore his helmet off and tossed it into the infield -- something of which he'd later have no recollection. His teammates had gathered at home plate, and Maxwell accelerated into a sprint. He jumped into the pile, and minutes later, the Nationals were still on the field, tossing T-shirts into the stands. Interim manager Jim Riggleman took a microphone and said to the crowd, "It's been a rough year in many ways, but the excitement out here night after night that we got from the fans, it's just been incredible."
This season, 1,817,256 fans, including 23,944 in the finale, passed through the turnstiles to watch a product that on many nights transmitted mixed feelings. For much of the night Wednesday, it looked like fans were in for more of the same. Entering the bottom of the ninth, Ryan Zimmerman had already ripped his 33rd home run of the year and John Lannan had pitched seven four-hit innings. But Washington trailed 4-2, three outs from a fitting endpoint to their home season.
This home date at Nationals Park resembled, because of its finality and energy, the last day of a school year. Some relished the endpoint. Others, like Riggleman, don't even know if they'll be around for the next starting point.
Before the game, a white moving van, parked in the lower-level Nationals Park concourse, idled outside the home clubhouse. Team clubhouse attendants shuttled players' belongings into the van, and hours before Washington took the field, its normally-pristine lounge resembled a storage area -- reminders of old stuff everywhere. One box, sitting in a hallway, was labeled in Sharpie, "M. Acta." Injured players Scott Olsen and Sean Burnett and Nyjer Morgan had already departed for the year, but their belongings lagged behind. Morgan's locker was obscured by two cardboard boxes, a canvas bat bag, and a shoebox. Since Morgan fractured his left hand on August 27, nobody yet has managed to fill his cleats.
"He came here and everything changed," said Willie Harris, sitting at his clubhouse stall. "He was a big acquisition. We didn't have a leadoff hitter. We didn't have a centerfielder. And he pretty much said, 'I'm the guy.' And he went out and proved it. Even the way he walked around here: That stuff rubs off on you. He's my MVP."
"Next year, we're gonna be some kind of fun," Harris said. "Wild card, man! I'm telling you. Book it. Nyjer's back. Strasburg doing his thing. Wild card next year. Take it to the bank. Cash it. I'd even say we'll win the division, but I don't want to take it too far."
He grinned, pausing for a moment.
"I've got to see what kind of acquisitions we make," he said.
Washington, with a final trip to Turner Field for a weekend series against Atlanta, still has four games remaining before 2009 closes for good. But already, the primary issues that the organization will confront this offseason have pushed to the forefront. Whatever benefits the Nationals took from 2009, they came at a cost. Their top homegrown pitching prospect, Jordan Zimmermann, went down with reconstructive elbow surgery. Their attendance declined, according to USA Today, 22.8-percent -- the greatest dropoff in the majors. They lost more than 100 games for the second consecutive season. They fired Acta at the all-star break, leading soon to the second managerial search since relocating from Montreal.
For now, Riggleman knows only what he desires, not what he'll get. "I can only say I want to come back," Riggleman said. "I really haven't been told anything except that I'm a candidate to be the manager. But that's okay. That's a good thing. The process is going to play itself out."
"Jim is a definite candidate to stay on," Rizzo later said. "Like I said, he's done a great job. I would say he's a legitimate candidate to be the manager in 2010. Jim's done a really good job handling the ballclub since the all-star break. I think he's done the best job he could with the ability level he had on the field."
Before it can win, Washington needs more, and Riggleman and Rizzo agree on that much. Rizzo this offseason will shop for a reliable veteran starter, and he'll look to improve the middle infield defense. But he said on Wednesday that a wholesale demolition of the club isn't necessary.
"I don't see a mass blowing up of the ballclub," he said. "I think we have a lot of good, core pieces in place. I'm excited about the youth and the players we can control over a long period of time who are going to be on the team in 2010. I think a few shrewd, strategic moves in some key areas I think will improve the ballclub for 2010."
Minutes before the first pitch on Fan Appreciation Day, Rizzo appeared on the field, microphone in hand, and thanked fans for their support "in what has been a trying season."