By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 5, 2009
ATLANTA, Oct. 4 -- Unwatchable at the beginning, unbeatable at the end, unorthodox without interruption, the 2009 Washington Nationals finished their poorest season with their best effort. On Sunday, before the Nationals split for the winter, they set one final ambush on conventional expectations, turning a meaningless game into a compelling one and concluding their season with a 15-inning, 2-1 victory against the Atlanta Braves.
Nothing, really, hung in the balance Sunday afternoon at Turner Field, but somehow, the game became a loopy delight. A bullpen that earlier could only blow leads on this afternoon couldn't let up a run. Fielding a starting lineup composed entirely of players who'd seen time this year in Class AAA, the Nationals, who started the year with a seven-game losing streak, ended it with a seven-game winning streak.
"We're calling it a 7 1/2 -game winning streak," team President Stan Kasten said in the winning clubhouse.
This game, the longest since Washington's relocation, featured 14 pitchers and plenty of dominating pitching. Nationals pitchers walked just two. The teams committed no errors. After Nate McLouth's solo homer in the sixth and Adam Dunn's pinch-hit RBI single in the seventh, the teams entered a protracted stalemate during which nothing could end the game. Flyballs died at the warning track. Potential homers swerved just foul. Base-running mistakes thwarted rallies. Shoestring catches robbed RBI hits. Only in the top of the 15th did Washington finally break the tie, with a walk by Elijah Dukes and singles from Wil Nieves and Alberto González.
The final mark of a strange campaign: Logan Kensing, twice designated for assignment this year, recorded the last six outs for the Nationals, striking out Brooks Conrad in the bottom of the 15th with runners on second and third.
"To say it was weird or odd would be an understatement, but in the long run it was amazing," reliever Ron Villone said.
"I'm just very proud of them, and they should be proud of themselves," interim manager Jim Riggleman said. "Under the circumstances, with our record -- late in the year, to be playing with that kind of intensity, it's really a credit to them, because it's easy to let it get away from you in terms of motivation and stuff, and I think our guys stayed motivated and just played some really good baseball."
Good baseball, granted, did not appear until the very end. When Nationals pitchers and catchers reported to Viera, Fla., on Feb. 14, few predicted the group would have such difficulty pitching and catching. Certainly few envisioned a 103-loss team that fully embraced the local custom of outrageous, bewildering baseball, chasing futility not seen since the 106-loss Senators of 1963.
Once the season began, the Nationals needed only days to drop from playoff contention, and days more to drop from contention for anything but last place. They committed too many errors and blew too many leads. Most days, though not always, they showed up to the ballpark on time.
The Nationals earned steady ridicule from fans of proper baseball, as well as fans of proper uniform spelling. They led the league in errors and lowlights. On April 25, their center fielder, Dukes, lost a flyball in the sun while his shades were propped atop his cap. On April 30, starting pitcher Daniel Cabrera threw four wild pitches -- three more than Cole Hamels has thrown in the last two seasons. On May 6, relief pitcher Mike Hinckley lost his grip of a 3-2 fastball, unleashing it some 200 feet. He later compared the sensation to "going down really fast in an elevator and [feeling] your stomach go out from underneath you."
Hinckley added, for good measure, that he still had confidence in himself, and "I'll be ready to go for tomorrow."
The Nationals cut him the next day.
It's tough to pinpoint when, exactly, folks started comparing the Nationals with the 1962 Mets, but undoubtedly, Washington's most unfiltered day of haplessness occurred on July 7 in Denver. On that day, as the team lost for the 57th time in 82 games, Willie Harris, playing second base, stopped a groundball with his groin. Austin Kearns, caught in a rundown, performed a belly-flop while running to second base. Relief pitcher Joe Beimel, attempting to turn a double play, wheeled toward second and threw it over the head of Cristian Guzmán.
In an earlier, gentler era, all the missteps and misfortune might have turned the Nationals into cuddly losers. But the Nationals, from the beginning, portrayed themselves more as galling underachievers than hopeless can't-hack-its. They had some exceptional talent, just not in enough places. As a result, they had a gift for doing a lot of good things and still losing. Sometimes, they lost in ways that twisted the brain into a bowtie. Conversely, as Nyjer Morgan joined the team and Riggleman took over in the manager's office, the Nationals performed with success that few 100-loss teams ever experience.
Try these brainteasers:
The Nationals finished the season with a closer, Mike MacDougal, who led the National League in save percentage. As a team, they had the worst save percentage in the league.
In May, the Nationals scored five or more runs for 10 games in a row, yet they lost nine times. In September, four times in a six-game span, opposing pitchers took no-hitters into the fifth inning, yet the Nationals won twice.
Sometimes all at once, the ballclub looked promising and doomed. As of May 23, the Nationals adopted a pitching rotation featuring one second-year player and four rookies -- a group totaling 67 career starts.
"You look at something like that and, God, we could have lost 130 games," relief pitcher Jason Bergmann said.
By season's end, though, the Nationals had received 19 starts from Craig Stammen, 16 from Jordan Zimmermann, 15 from Shairon Martis, 15 from Garrett Mock, 15 from J.D. Martin and 14 from Ross Detwiler. The best news is, the next time you see this group, they will no longer be rookies.
"I definitely see progress," General Manager Mike Rizzo said. "I see a bullpen that, to me, is clearly more stable than it was when we were in spring training and the beginning of the year all the way up to the first half of the year. I see starting pitchers that have learned that they belong in the big leagues. I see a team that's played much cleaner, much better, much more fundamentally sound baseball the last half of the season."
In the postgame clubhouse on Sunday afternoon, as players packed their bags, Villone, who has played on 12 major league teams, took a glance at the surroundings.
"I enjoyed everything about it," he said. "I'd never played on a 100-loss team before; so be it. It's an experience. You chalk it up to that. But I see what is possible, watching some of our younger talent start to blossom a bit. It's something I want to be a part of."