He wasn't supposed to be a savior because saviors rarely appear in the middle of baseball seasons. But at the moment Preston Wilson joined the Washington Nationals it was clear there were expectations. They had traded their most tradable commodities left to get him and he did have 15 home runs at the time, and those glared from a mostly barren lineup as a beacon of hope.
So maybe the expectations were magnified. They leapt through the roof in his first Washington at-bat, the day after the all-star break, when he hammered a ball over the fence in Milwaukee.
Then came reality. First the popups, then the ground balls and eventually the strikeouts. Lots of strikeouts. And Wilson lined up with all the others whose numbers went cold in the summer Washington's new baseball team couldn't hit.
His name brought groans and then pleas that hopefully it wouldn't be in that day's lineup.
Then out of nowhere Wilson began to hit. Six weeks after his arrival in Washington, Wilson is among the handful of reasons the Nationals are still in the pennant race after a 13-game road trip that was supposed to be the end of them. In a way, he's saved them after all.
"Like anything it took awhile to get acclimated to how everything goes around here," Wilson, 31, said the other day as he sat in front of his locker in Philadelphia. He wore a tie-dyed Nationals T-shirt that several of the players brought with them. In his hands he held two bats -- both in his name, but different makers, different models. He gave one of the bats to his teammate Vinny Castilla, who held it, cradled it, tried to swing and then made a face. Too heavy.
Wilson laughed, which is something he did not seem to do much in the days immediately after the Nationals acquired him for pitcher Zach Day and minor league outfielder J.J. Davis. In fact he appeared downright prickly. But now that the swing is smooth again and there are home runs and base hits, he seems more content, as if he has finally figured out a secret as to why he looked so flustered on the field.
"You can underestimate the importance of playing every day," he said. "I've learned that the hard way."
His left knee failed him in Colorado, keeping him from spring training last year, most of last season and much of this year's spring training as well.
"It was a couple of days on and a couple of days off," he said. "I didn't realize how hard it was to have consistent at-bats."
He had them for a while at the start of this season in Colorado, but when it came clear the Rockies were looking to start anew with young players he became expendable. And for a time in Washington he did not play every day, either.
His new manager, Frank Robinson, and hitting coach, Tom McCraw, sat down with him not long after he arrived to deliver the same message -- he was not expected to save this team. Just in case he was worried that he was supposed to. But he understood this already. As the stepson of a major league center fielder in the 1980s, Mookie Wilson, he saw the way expectations were heaped on ballplayers, especially in New York where his stepfather played with the Mets. He also learned that in baseball things go in cycles. Sometimes it takes weeks before the hits come again.
What perplexed McCraw was the loss of power. Years before, when McCraw was a coach in the Mets' minor league system and Wilson was Mookie's kid on the rise, McCraw would marvel at the son's ability to hit home runs. The way the ball seemed to burst off the bat -- it was natural. And the most amazing thing was how powerfully he hit the ball to right field. It was a rare find in a young player.
And by the time McCraw had Wilson again this year that power was gone. Wilson was pulling everything, reaching deep for the home runs.
"My point was what's wrong with a two-run single to right field?" McCraw asked. "He felt he had to hit the ball to left field to hit it out of the park."
It took days of working before the old habits started to change. McCraw would bellow all the crazy things he is known to yell, such as, "If you hit it well it will go out of the Grand Canyon as much as it will go out of Williamsport!"
McCraw laughed and spit a plug of tobacco.
"Of all the baseball hitters that I have seen, the only guy out of all those years and out of all those great players who pulled the ball and was successful was Theodore Williams," McCraw said. "Think of all the ones who have come along and been successful, Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds. Ultimately they all had to hit singles to the opposite field to drive in runs. You have to use the whole ballpark to be successful."
Then McCraw smiled. Look at where Wilson's three home runs on the road trip went, he said. One to left, one to center, one to right. The whole field.
The change in Wilson has been stunning. He's hitting .455 (15 for 33) in his last nine games, with nine RBI, raising his batting average to .265. This is what they got him for, after all. He didn't have to save them, all he had to do was get hits and drive in runs.
"I don't think I was considered the savior here," Wilson said with a laugh. "I don't think [General Manager] Jim [Bowden] or Frank had that idea. I think it was a matter of adding something because of what I had done in the past. As far as a savior, in that sense they had Jose Guillen and [Jose] Vidro, guys who have proven offensive ability. The problem was, when I was coming here, Vidro was coming off the disabled list and Nick [Johnson] was on the DL.
"I think it's a matter of guys finally getting healthy and not trying to do too much."
Which is maybe all they needed after all.