Five years ago, the Washington Nationals were on top of the world

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 2, 2010; D01

The closer is in the capital of California, awaiting a midday, midweek special between the homestanding Sacramento River Cats and his own Tacoma Rainiers. The would-be ace rises each morning in his home town, more than 100 miles east of Houston, works out with his wife, and starts each work day at 3:30 p.m., teaching kids how to pitch a baseball.

The second baseman is retired, back in his native Puerto Rico. The center fielder retired as well -- not once, but twice -- and is raising his family in Florida. The first baseman is on the disabled list -- again -- but this time with the world champion New York Yankees. The starting catcher is a backup in Philadelphia. The backup catcher sells medical supplies in suburban Chicago. The third baseman assists Colorado's general manager. The manager assists the commissioner of baseball. The general manager hosts a radio show from his adopted home town of Hollywood.

And in some fashion, each of them carries with them the memory of five springs ago, a time when, as Liván Hernández -- the man who threw the first major league pitch in Washington in 34 years -- said, "We come to the stadium, and we know we were going to win that game."

"It was electric, just magical," said Frank Robinson, the manager of the 2005 Washington Nationals. "It was like a fantasy-type time."

Next week, shiny Nationals Park -- less than four miles from its dank and dusty predecessor, RFK Stadium -- will teem with excitement when Stephen Strasburg takes the mound for his first major league appearance, the first true baseball event in the District since the Nationals brought the sport back five years ago.

Of the men in uniform for the Nationals during Strasburg's debut, only two -- Hernández and Cristian Guzmán -- were also wearing Nationals red-and-white on April 14, 2005. Some of Strasburg's new teammates know the abject misery of back-to-back 100-loss seasons. Some of them believe -- in part because of Strasburg's right arm -- that better times are well within reach.

But most of them have no recollection that, beginning five years ago Wednesday, the Nationals went on a 10-game winning streak that thrust them into first place in the National League East.

"Really?" said Ryan Zimmerman, the current third baseman, Gold Glove winner and all-star.

Yes, Zim. And you were drafted in the middle of that streak. "Was I?"

Most of these Nationals have forgotten, if they ever realized, that the 2005 team -- the erstwhile, vagabond Montreal Expos -- reached the midway point of the season on pace to win 100 games. The guys that were here -- many of whom are out of the game and have scattered all over the country -- will never forget.

"You have good years and bad years as far as stats-wise, and team-wise," said Brian Schneider, the starting catcher on those Nationals, a backup for the Phillies now. "But to this day, people talk about Washington, and they ask me what it's like, and I always say, 'Hey, it's an unbelievable place to play.' That's what we got out of that year. It was unbelievable."

A weird dynamic

On Tuesday , the version of the Nationals that Strasburg will join stands at 26-26, tied for fourth place in the National League East -- a nice start, certainly above expectations. On the morning of June 2, 2005, the Nationals stood at 27-26, in third place -- also a nice start, but nothing that garnered much attention outside the District.

That night, a backup catcher named Gary Bennett belted his first home run of the season, then ripped a bases-loaded, three-run double in the bottom of the eighth to turn a deficit into a lead and push the Nationals past the Atlanta Braves, 8-6. There was no way to know it then, but the Nationals were about to roll, and they were about to do so in nearly the same fashion every night.

"I didn't get too excited if we were behind going to the seventh or eighth inning," Robinson said. "And I remember hearing that from the fans, too. 'Don't worry. You'll get 'em.' "

So they did. That night, just after Bennett stroked the double that gave the Nationals the lead, he stood stoically at second base, trying to act as if it happened every day. Veteran reserves Carlos Baerga and Jeffrey Hammonds, long past their primes, stood in the dugout, hollering at Bennett, who didn't notice. They wanted emotion. They wanted fun.

"From then on, Carlos just got over the top," Bennett said. "He wanted energy. It was an interesting mix of knuckleheads we had. There was a weird dynamic. It's probably one of the closer-knit teams I played with. When you got to the clubhouse, it was almost one of those party atmospheres."

So over the ensuing 10 days, the Nationals partied, and the fans -- 320,142 during those 10 games -- joined them. They swept the Florida Marlins, then the Oakland Athletics, then the Seattle Mariners. Five of the wins were by one run. Six were comebacks, and four of those comebacks came in the seventh or later.

"It was such a fun, crazy time," said Ryan Church, then a promising rookie outfielder for the Nationals, now struggling in his first season with Pittsburgh, his third team since he last played in Washington. "I mean, we couldn't wait to go in to play one of those powerhouse teams and say, 'Hey, we're going to beat your ass. Don't take us lightly, because we can play.' "

On June 5, a Sunday afternoon, 40,995 fans climbed into RFK's rickety stands, and Church blasted a tie-breaking, three-run homer in the bottom of the eighth against the Marlins. And when the ninth inning started, the bullpen door swung open, and a squat, 23-year-old reliever with a flat-brimmed hat jogged to the mound. He would throw his fastball at perhaps 89, but certainly no more than 91 mph. "I still can't believe how many fastballs we got away with that year," Schneider said. But he would save the game.

"I've never had as much fun," Chad Cordero says now, five years, one shoulder operation and a two-year stint in the minors later.

"As a starting pitcher, knowing you had a guy in the bullpen that was confident and had already had a lot of success, it helped you relax," said John Patterson, one of the starters. "Really, in the eighth and ninth innings, with [Luis] Ayala and Cordero out there, we thought we had the game won."

Cordero didn't know it then, but he was on his way to the All-Star Game, on his way to a major league-high 47 saves for the year. When he struck out Carlos Delgado, then Miguel Cabrera, then got Juan Encarnación on a flyball, he had his 12th consecutive save in a streak that would eventually reach 26.

The Nationals suddenly occupied a position no Washington baseball team had held since 1933: First place. By the time they departed for a nine-game, 10-day trip, they had won those 10 straight and owned a 1 1/2 -game lead in the division.

"We were going to run away with it," Hernández said.

'A great day'

The streak ended with a thud in the first game of that trip, an 11-1 loss to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The next night, though, all but defined the first half of that season. The Nationals right fielder that year was José Guillén, a talented hitter with a tempestuous personality who had, quite infamously, played the previous season in Anaheim and been suspended for the playoffs by Manager Mike Scioscia for insubordination. By the time the Nationals arrived out west, Guillén was hitting .285 with 10 home runs -- and chewing Robinson's ear off.

"He liked to talk," Robinson said. "People say I handled José. No. All I did was listen."

In the seventh inning of the second game of the series against the Angels, the Nationals trailed 3-1, and Scioscia called on reliever Brendan Donnelly. Donnelly used pine tar -- a substance that might alter the flight of the ball, illegally -- on his glove. Guillén, his old teammate in Anaheim, knew it.

"It was one of those situations that I know what he was doing, and I didn't like that," said Guillén, now the designated hitter in Kansas City. "To me, it was like, 'I'm not going to put up with this.' I know and I can see sitting on the bench what he was doing. To me it was kind of unacceptable to do that stuff."

So Guillén told bench coach Eddie Rodriguez, who relayed the information to Robinson. When Donnelly was warming up, Robinson approached the umpiring crew and asked to have Donnelly's glove checked. The umpires, indeed, found the pine tar. Donnelly was ejected.

"It was a great day," Guillén said. Scioscia marched to Robinson and told him he would have all the Nationals relievers "undressed" when they entered the game. When Scioscia turned around, Robinson hadn't yet had his say. There he stood, a 69-year-old Hall of Famer, at risk of being upstaged. No, sir.

"I'm saying to myself, 'Hey, wait a minute, buddy,' " Robinson said last week. " 'You don't disrespect me, then walk away.' "

As Robinson went after Scioscia, the Nationals watched from the dugout -- then started to spill out of it. Robinson pointed a long index finger in Scioscia's face.

"For all we knew, he would've gotten his ass kicked for us," Schneider said. "We always heard the stories about Frank, how much of a tough, hard-ass he was. And that really came out that night. He didn't care how old he was."

A 10-game winning streak had brought the Nationals and their fans together. A benches-clearing near-brawl -- one in which an irate Guillén had to be tackled in restraint -- brought the Nationals themselves even further together.

"The players started to see an emotion they weren't used to seeing, and they probably found out something about him that they didn't understand: That he was totally for them, and trusted them, and wanted them to do well," said Rodriguez, the bench coach.

In the eighth, with the Nationals trailing by two, Guillén scalded a homer to left -- "probably the hardest ball I hit in my career," he said -- that tied the game, and the Nationals went on to a 6-3 victory. Afterward, Guillén turned the music low in the clubhouse, "and he thanked each and every one of us for being there for him," Schneider said. The next night, Cordero somehow escaped a no-out, bases-loaded jam in the ninth, and the Nationals won, 1-0.

"That night, on the plane, we were going crazy," Hernandez said. "It was very exciting. We played so together."

Not the same team

Patterson, now 32, started 31 games that year for the Nationals, and he appeared so full of promise. Now, countless examinations of his right arm are in his past, and he is retired. He has, as he said, "a job, not a career." He enjoys teaching baseball to kids, as he does each day in his hometown of Orange, Tex., where he bought a batting cage and supports four select youth teams. But that spring of 2005, five years in the rearview mirror, can teach a young man a thing or three.

"You can't take it for granted," Patterson said. "You hear people say that when you're a kid, or even if you're in pro ball. That's very true. When my arm completely shut down and I couldn't do it anymore, it was the most agonizing, depressing. . . . I could go on and on about how it's changed my life. But you have to respect the game and you have to respect the opportunities that you're given. You don't know when you're going to wake up and not be able to do it anymore."

That year, on July 2, when the Nationals finished an exhilarating sweep of the Cubs in Chicago, they stood at 50-31, with a 5 1/2 -game lead in the division, exactly at the halfway point of the season. But things were already beginning to fray. First baseman Nick Johnson got hurt. Church got hurt. Hernández pitched with a badly injured knee. The bad knee of third baseman Vinny Castilla -- one originally injured in spring training -- caused him to hobble down the dugout steps. In early July, Guillén got into a dugout confrontation with right-hander Esteban Loaiza because Guillén felt Loaiza hadn't properly protected him after the Mets' Pedro Martínez hit Guillén with a pitch.

"That didn't help," Schneider said.

In the 100th game of the season, the Nationals lost to Atlanta and fell out of first place, never to return. Eventually, the glory of 50-31 faded into the disaster of 31-50 in the second half.

"It's like someone turned a switch off," Robinson said. "It was like someone changed the personnel. We just were not the same team -- didn't do the same things, didn't play the same way, didn't have the same attitude. I'm saying, 'Wow, somebody must have given me different players, but they look just like the players we had.' "

Of the nine players who were on the RFK Stadium field the night baseball returned to Washington, three of them -- second baseman Jose Vidro, third baseman Castilla, left fielder Brad Wilkerson, who spent much of the summer in center -- are retired. Loaiza, Patterson, Bennett, Baerga and others join them there. The back end of the bullpen, the backbone of the club, is no longer in the majors. Héctor Carrasco, now 40, pitches in independent ball. Gary Majewski, Ayala and Cordero -- who underwent shoulder surgery with the Nationals in 2008, and then wasn't offered a contract to return -- are all in Class AAA, hoping to return to the majors.

"I knew it wasn't going to be like that every year," Cordero said. "I know I've got to work hard for everything in baseball, and in life. . . . But a lot of the time, last year when I was rehabbing, when I was wondering whether I'd be able to pitch again."

Now, he is pitching, but in relative obscurity with the Seattle chain. He and Majewski, roommates in 2005, still talk and see each other. Schneider texts with Wilkerson, with Cordero, with a few others. Bennett (who went on to win a World Series with St. Louis in 2006) and Johnson (who hopes to win one this year with the Yankees) check in with a text or two every few weeks. Castilla, in his role in the Rockies front office, sees players as they come through Denver. Jim Bowden, the general manager who assembled the crew, keeps tabs on those who still play, and even some who don't, in his role as a co-host on Sirius satellite radio's MLB Network.

Five years later, what they have in common is only those few glorious months, then that collapse. And what's left in Washington is a completely different situation, with a new ballpark and a new star that could outshine them all about to arrive.

Last month, Hernández sat in the dugout at Nationals Park and thought about the two teams. He has pitched for four franchises since then, been released twice and revived his career.

"This team, it feels like the 2005 team," Hernández said. "We try to win, and that's it. We don't just try to make games close. And we're going to get hot. We are. We got the staff we need for getting hot and win 10 games in a row -- and a good pitcher coming."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company