NEW YORK — In the year that passed since his last major league win, Craig Stammen chose appreciation over resentment. Only two pitchers started more games for the Washington Nationals last season. Yet they stashed Stammen in the bullpen last fall and shipped him to the minor leagues this spring. He was virtually forgotten, but not at all embittered.
“It’s still baseball,” Stammen said. “If you’d have told me five or 10 years ago, when I was in high school or college, ‘When you’re 27, you’re going to be playing Triple-A baseball for a living,’ I think I would have taken it in a heartbeat. I try to stay focused. I try to get better every day. If I had the chance to pitch in the big leagues, I was going to be ready for it.”
The chance came last week, when Stammen resurfaced, one amongst a flood of September call-ups. Given the ball on Tuesday night, Stammen stood out in the Nationals’ 3-2 victory over the New York Mets before 25,359 at Citi Field. He pitched out of a sixth-inning jam, sparked a seventh-inning rally, scored the deciding run and earned his first win in the majors since Aug. 4, 2010.
Stammen could have stewed in the minors. Instead, he embraced the assignment, worked and waited. Sometimes, the length of a year depends on your perspective.
“It seemed like it went really fast,” Stammen said. “I had a ton of fun this year. I couldn’t ask for anything better this year. I had a great time. I accomplished a lot of goals that I set. I hope I finish up a couple more.”
Tuesday, the Nationals took their first lead in the seventh, when Ryan Zimmerman scored Stammen with a single to left off Bobby Parnell. Seven pitchers — beginning with Chien-Ming Wang, who pitched five innings, and concluding with Drew Storen, who got his 36th save — held the Mets to two runs. It didn’t end until Storen stranded runners on the corners by striking out Lucas Duda.
With their 69th victory, the Nationals matched their 2010 win total and moved one game behind the Mets for third place in the National League East. With two games left in the series and 15 games remaining this season, the Nationals have the chance to finish above fourth for the first time in their six seasons in Washington. The Nationals, though, have priorities beyond the standings this month.
“If you can’t finish first or win the wild card, I’m not going to lose any sleep over trying to finish third,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “A lot more has to go on here. Chien-Ming has to rehab and come back and regain his old form. We’ve got some young guys who we’re running out there. We want them to get some seasoning. If all those things happen, I see a byproduct of all that is winning. I want to finish as high as we can finish. But it’s not a goal of mine.”
If the Nationals are playing with an eye on next year, so, then, are some of the players. When Stammen jogged from the bullpen to the mound Tuesday, red socks pulled up to his knees, he knew the result could impact more than the tie game.
“Every time you go out there, you’ve got to try to make an impression on somebody,” Stammen said. “Every time you pitch, every time you step on the mound, you’ve got to prove yourself.”
The Nationals had just tied the score in the top half of the inning, scoring on RBI doubles by Rick Ankiel and Michael Morse. Left-handed reliever Doug Slaten had immediately endangered the lead, walking the first batter he faced, plunking the second, then hitting the showers.
Stammen inherited Slaten’s two-on, no-out mess. He knew the Mets expected early strikes, so he mixed cutters and sliders early in the count. He struck out the first hitter he faced, Nick Evans, who swung at an 84-mph cutter in the dirt. Josh Thole grounded out to Ian Desmond at shortstop, and Mike Baxter popped to shallow center field.
Stammen’s spot in the batting order was due up second in the top of the seventh. But, Johnson said, “he did such a good job, I said, ‘I want to see more of that.’ ”
And so, having preserved the tie, Stammen hit for himself. Johnson had been told that Stammen hit well for a pitcher — last year, he went 9 for 38. He stepped into the box with one out in the seventh, and he rolled the first pitch he saw through the right side, just past Evans’s dive.
Desmond followed with a single, and Stammen moved to third on Ankiel’s groundout. Mets Manager Terry Collins summoned Bobby Parnell to face Zimmerman, who last week hit a broken-bat walk-off single against Parnell. This time, Zimmerman ripped a 96-mph fastball to left field for an RBI single. Stammen trotted home.
Stammen walked Jose Reyes to start the seventh, but he induced a pop-up bunt from Ruben Tejada for the first out. With a left-hander coming to the plate, Johnson pulled Stammen. Combined with his other appearance since his call-up, Stammen had retired eight of nine hitters. He had made his impression.
“I may have some age on me, but I’ve got a pretty good memory when guys do well,” Johnson said. “He’s been throwing the ball exceptionally well. He’s got a live arm. He’s definitely in the mix here.”