5. March 30, 2008
Not only did the Nationals open their brand-new ballpark, they did so on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball,” the kind of showcase this woebegone franchise had infrequently been afforded. Put aside, for the moment, that the first pitch in the history of the new yard was thrown by Odalis Perez. Put aside, too, that Atlanta Braves right-hander Tim Hudson, who routinely ridiculed the Nats, allowed only three hits in his seven innings of work, and that Jon Rauch – subbing for closer Chad Cordero, who experienced shoulder issues warming up – couldn’t hold a 2-1 lead headed in the ninth.
So it was left to Ryan Zimmerman. When Nationals Park opened, Zimmerman – the first draft choice when baseball returned to Washington – had his picture on back of the massive scoreboard in center field, celebrating one of his walk-offs back at RFK Stadium. Braves side-arming right-hander Peter Moylan retired Cristian Guzman and Lastings Milledge to open the bottom of the ninth. But with two outs, Moylan threw Zimmerman a 1-0 sinker, and Zimmerman drilled it into center, where it landed in the Red Porch seats. That team went on to lose 102 games, but that moment serves as something as a demarcation point – when baseball in Washington went, nationally, from being something of a curiosity to a legitimate enterprise.
4. June 8, 2010
Coming off back-to-back 100-loss seasons, the symbol of hope became this night, Stephen Strasburg’s debut. “Strasmas,” as it quickly became known, was preceded by the right-hander’s incredible blitz through the minors after being the first overall choice in the 2009 draft. No baseball debut, in recent memory, matched it. Nationals Park sold out. The MLB Network carried the game live, with Bob Costas on play-by-play. The first batter Strasburg faced was Andrew McCutchen, who later became a National League MVP but lined out weakly to shortstop. The first strikeout he recorded, to complete a 1-2-3 first inning, was former National Lastings Milledge, a symbol of the franchise’s helpless, hopeless days.
Sure, Strasburg allowed a two-out, two-run homer to Delwyn Young in the fourth. But the night built from there. Strasburg struck out Jeff Karstens, the opposing pitcher, to end the fifth, his eighth strikeout to that point. He then struck out McCutchen, Neil Walker and Milledge in an 11-pitch sixth. When he took the mound in the seventh, he held a lead again because of back-to-back homers from Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham. And he finished it off from there: striking out Garrett Jones, Young and Andy LaRoche – the last two on three pitches apiece – to end his outing with seven consecutive punch-outs, giving him 14 for the night.
This was just one game in the middle of a lousy season that would end with Strasburg undergoing elbow surgery. But rarely has hype been matched – or overmatched – by performance.
3. April 14, 2005
The Washington Senators played their last game at RFK Stadium in 1971, and departed to be the Texas Rangers. And when the Montreal Expos moved to Washington at the conclusion of the 2004 season, RFK needed to be overhauled so it could host baseball again. So the Nationals spent their first nine games on the road, winning the last two games in Atlanta to come home in first place.
Was it worth a 33-year wait? Close. When the Nationals took the field, they were greeted at each position by a former Senator. President George W. Bush threw out the ceremonial first pitch to catcher Brian Schneider. And then, the game: Livan Hernandez, who would become one of this franchise’s most beloved characters, fired a first-pitch strike to Arizona’s Craig Counsell, and baseball was back.
But think, too, of the rest of that night. Third baseman Vinny Castilla hit a double, a triple and a homer – and was robbed of a chance to hit for the cycle when Diamondbacks reliever Lance Cormier hit him with a pitch, a move that elicited boos from the crowd of 45,596. Hernandez looked as if he would go for a complete game, but when he faltered in the ninth, here came Chad Cordero to close it out, and he got Tony Clark to fly out to end the game. The entire experience set up a summer love affair with baseball in Washington – one in which the Nationals were 50-31 and in first place at the midway point, then finished 30-51 over the second half to finish in last.
2. Sept. 28, 2014
The game was meaningless. The Nationals had already clinched their second National League East title in three years. They had already clinched the best record in the league, meaning they’ll hold home-field advantage until the World Series. Manager Matt Williams intended to get his regulars a couple of at-bats and then play the bench guys, preserving his stalwarts for a playoff run.
But what Jordan Zimmermann did Sunday places this high because of the message it sends throughout baseball. His no-hitter of the Miami Marlins finished off a sprint to the finish of the season by the Nationals, who finished 10-3 after they clinched the division. This wasn’t just the first no-hitter since baseball returned. It was a statement – about how far the franchise has come, about how good this team is and how prepared it is for October.
1. Oct. 11, 2012
The Nationals won 98 games and finished with the best record in the National League, but because of a scheduling quirk opened their first playoff appearance on the road in St. Louis. That left Games 3, 4 and 5 (if necessary) at Nationals Park. But the Cardinals easily took an 8-0 victory in the third game, and a loss for Washington in Game 4 would have ended the season, with the home fans deprived of celebrating a victory in person.
Nationals lefty Ross Detwiler locked up with Cardinals right-hander Kyle Lohse, and the game went to the late innings tied at 1-1. In the ninth, Drew Storen kept the score right there, working around a walk with two strikeouts and a pop-up. And in the bottom of the inning, Jayson Werth – the Nationals’ first major free-agent acquisition, the veteran who had won a World Series in Philadelphia – came up to face Lance Lynn.
Werth, hitting in the leadoff spot because of his penchant for getting on base and seeing pitches, put together the best, most important at-bat in Nationals history. It got to a full count and lasted 13 pitches, with Werth fouling off seven two-strike pitches. He didn’t miss the last one, though, sending it on a line into the left-field seats, extending the series and the Nationals’ season.
Everything about the moment – Werth’s point to the dugout, then leap into the stratosphere as he reached home plate – was perfect. That it set up disappointment the following night in the form of a kick-to-the-gut, come-from-ahead 9-7 loss in Game 5 is, oddly, perfect too. Baseball is, still, relatively new in Washington, at least this iteration of it is. Werth’s home run allowed a nascent fan base to experience the best the sport has to offer. The next night offered the worst.
And that’s what Jordan Zimmermann’s outing Sunday did, too: earned a place in franchise history, while raising more expectations and hopes about what’s to come.