At the trade deadline last year, Rick Ankiel landed with the Atlanta Braves, the team that he grew up rooting for. He experienced the finest moment of his singular career playing for them, an October home run that won a playoff game. He still thinks of those times in almost whimsical terms. “There are two places to play: one is the big leagues, and the second is the playoffs,” Ankiel said. “It’s a magical time. It’s what you work hard for all the time.”
The Washington Nationals, the team Ankiel plays for this season, are facing virtually impossible odds against reaching the playoffs. Against the Braves on Monday night, in a 5-3 Nationals victory, Ankiel settled for the finest moment of his season. Ankiel blasted two home runs off Braves starter Jair Jurrjens, continuing his month-long hot streak and lifting the Nationals to their third straight victory before 19,940 at Nationals Park.
Ankiel’s old team may still lead his current one by 10 games in the wild-card race, but the Nationals evened the season series against them at 5-5. With Ankiel providing the fireworks, Nationals starter Livan Hernandez bounced back from a four-inning start by allowing one run over six innings and drove in a run himself. The Nationals struck a blow against one of the National League East’s bullies the day after the Braves upgraded their lineup by trading for Houston Astros center fielder Michael Bourn.
“To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best,” right fielder Jayson Werth said. The Braves and Philadelphia Phillies “are at the top of the division. We’re going to see them a lot the rest of the way. It’s going to be a test. It’s going to give us an idea of where we’re at, going forward, for years to come. If we’re going to win this division, we’re going to have to go through those two teams.”
Monday night, Ankiel struck a blow himself. It has been an uneven season in Washington, derailed twice by injury. He started the season as the everyday center fielder, then sprained his wrist and missed most of May. By the time he returned, he had lost playing time to Roger Bernadina, and with irregular at-bats he went 8 for 48. Less than a month after returning, Ankiel pulled an oblique and missed the second half of June, too.
“You do what you can do,” Ankiel said. “If you get hurt, you battle through it.”
Ankiel played down the effect the injuries had on his season, but he seems to have finally settled in since July 1, when he first returned. Playing time has helped. Since the Nationals optioned Bernadina to Class AAA Syracuse, Ankiel has become the regular center fielder.
“He’s definitely been more focused coming off the DL,” Werth said. “Obviously, you don’t want to get hurt. When you do, then you get sense of, you take a step back and take a long look at yourself sometimes. You come back focused and ready to play.”
Since he returned July 1, Ankiel has hit .339 with a .394 on-base percentage and a .593 slugging percentage in 67 plate appearances. Sunday, he scored the game-winning walk-off run. Monday, Ankiel batted leadoff, and he greeted Jurrjens — who entered with a 2.38 ERA — by smoking a 1-1 change-up over the scoreboard in right field.
“It’s awfully hard to sit, especially if you’re capable of being a power hitter like he is,” said Manager Davey Johnson, who has taken to throwing Ankiel early batting practice himself. “Now that he’s getting regular at-bats again, he’s cutting down on his strikeouts. His swings are better.”
The Nationals added a run in the second after Werth led off with a double down the left field line. Laynce Nix pushed him to third with a groundout and Ian Desmond popped up to shallow center, leaving Werth on third with two outs.
Braves Manager Fredi Gonzalez chose to intentionally walk Ramos, ignoring the brief history between Hernandez, who was on deck, and Jurrjens. Hernandez had two hits against Jurrjens in the only two at-bats he faced him, including one last year that displayed all of Hernandez’s carefree bravado.
While standing on deck during a game in Atlanta, he started chatting with an incredulous fan and told him that he hit Jurrjens well and, when the fan expressed doubt, predicted a home run. Hernandez walked to the plate and actually did a hit a homer. After circling the bases, he handed his bat to the incredulous fan with whom he’d called his shot.
When Hernandez walked to the plate in the second inning, then, Hernandez may have wondered about the first-pitch fastball Jurrjens fired under his chin — a mistake or a message? It failed to rattle Hernandez. Two pitches later, Jurrjens threw a slider away, and Hernandez dove over the plate and rolled it into right field, scoring the Nationals’ second run, giving them a 2-1 lead.
They still led by just a run when Ankiel came to the plate in the bottom of the fifth. Jurrjens worked a 2-2 count and threw Ankiel a two-seam fastball. Ankiel crushed it into the second deck above the Nationals’ bullpen in right field.
The Nationals added two more runs in the sixth, one on an RBI single by Nix and another after Dan Uggla misfired to first trying to complete a double play. Jurrjens ranks among the league leaders in ERA, but the Nationals have scored 11 earned runs off him in 10 innings this season.
They needed their last two runs, too. Todd Coffey gave up a homer in the seventh after he took over for Hernandez, and in the ninth Drew Storen gave up a homer for the second straight day, Uggla’s second of the game. But he recovered to save his 27th game this season.
Storen closed the victory, but Ankiel created it. He does not expand much on his own performance — it took him 2 minutes 36 seconds to answer 10 questions from reporters after the game. He said what he needed to during the game.
“Sometimes you make it happen, sometimes you don’t,” Ankiel said. “Lately, I’ve been getting good contact. And good things are happening.”