Meet Robert Clifton Henley, an exceedingly nice 43-year-old man from Alabama. Goes by Bob, Bobby to the men with whom he works. Didn’t you know him before? Pull up a bar stool and listen a bit. We’ll tell you where he fits in Washington Nationals history.
The dread that settled in over Nationals Park before 11 p.m. Thursday night was real, and it was suffocating. So it will be hard to remember, when this devastating rerun of a loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers is parsed. But when the world didn’t know Bob Henley’s name, the Nationals led the Dodgers by a run in the sixth inning of the fifth and decisive game of their National League Division Series.
And then Ryan Zimmerman rocketed a ball to left field. And then Jayson Werth headed toward third base. And then Henley wheeled his arm.
“He feels terrible about that,” Manager Dusty Baker said, “because it didn’t work.”
You can tell yourself this is part of the process. You can tell yourself that the reward will be greater because of the pain. But the 4-3 loss that ended the season fits into what is becoming a deeper Nationals history. Feel free to shudder.
It is why the name Bob Henley mattered Thursday night and in a way will matter forever.
When this fan base went through this four years ago, a fifth game against the Cardinals, there was no foundation of fear. There were no scars. What happened that night — and we won’t get into the particulars of building a 6-0 advantage, only to blow what became a two-run lead in the ninth — was fresh and new. The core of this team was set up to win and win big, we were told. Just hang in there.
But the people who filed into Nationals Park on Thursday night were nervous — and not just about whether Metro would still be running when the game ended. That group, clad in red and standing for long stretches at a time, has a Pete Effing Kozma in its past. It has the “World Series or bust” team of 2013. It has Aaron Barrett on the mound in 2014’s Game 4 in San Francisco, a game in which neither Stephen Strasburg nor Tyler Clippard nor Drew Storen threw a pitch. And it has the implosion of 2015, when the closer the fan base didn’t want put his hands around the throat of the soon-to-be MVP.
Add the night of Oct. 13, into the morning Oct. 14, 2016, to the list.
“It was right there, right there for us to get,” Werth said. “And we just didn’t get it done, man. It sucks.”
Washington has baseball history, and don’t let anyone tell you it doesn’t. Walter Johnson and Josh Gibson, Harmon Killebrew and Ted Williams. But people in their 30s grew up without the sport here, and people who moved to town in the 1990s knew nothing other than driving up to Baltimore to catch what amounted to the local team back then.
Imagine that now. It seems foreign. The ballpark on South Capitol Street isn’t yet a decade old. The team just completed its 12th season in town. When Livan Hernandez emerged to throw out the ceremonial first pitch and they showed highlights of his World Series heroics with the Marlins on the video board, it made for easy fodder for out-of-towners to scoff at what has been built here.
But then Ryan Zimmerman caught that pitch, and the 43,936 in attendance knew that the long embrace between the two men — the man who threw the first pitch in Washington after a 33-year absence, hugging the man who later that year became the team’s first draft choice — and this fan base had a moment. It’s even possible, finally, that a father in the stands could turn to his 10-year-old daughter and explain Livo’s importance to the team, to the town.
So we know. We know what it feels like to have no baseball, to get it back, to be terrible and to become good. But Thursday night was about the next step and the saw blades in your stomach it would take to make it.
“Everyone wants to win the World Series,” Zimmerman said. “Everyone wants to obviously get to the next level, get in a deep postseason run. The truth of the matter is, it’s really hard to do.”
We know. As a town, we know.
Inevitably, there were data points when the angst ratcheted up Thursday night. It was reasonable, even for the most hardened Washington sports fan — he or she who has lived with years of Redskins embarrassment and irrelevance, who has endured the Capitals’ Octobers of hope and Aprils of misery, who remembers a basketball title from a team of a different name, nearly four decades ago — to look at the second-inning run provided by, of all things, an opposite-field single from Danny Espinosa (?!) and concentrate instead on the missed opportunity it provided.
Start there. As Max Scherzer held the Dodgers hitless through four and scoreless through six, the drips of frustration began to sprinkle through the yard. What if, with a runner on third and less than two outs in both the second and the third, Jose Lobaton and/or Werth had managed to lift a flyball? Instead, both struck out.
That was just a start. When you have endured Pete Kozma and Aaron Barrett and Matt Williams in October, you start to anticipate the worst. So when Bryce Harper studied the pickoff move of 20-year-old Dodgers lefty Julio Urias once, learned absolutely nothing, and was picked off on the next attempt — ending the fifth with Werth up — it felt like it meant something, even if it didn’t.
Those, though, were all subtle moments, the kind discussed after the second beer, with help of a scorebook to remember. The issues you take into the offseason, the ones that hang over a franchise for years to come and become part of tales handed down through generations came later.
As Werth churned his 37-year-old legs toward third, there were two outs in the sixth inning. He had come all the way from first as Dodgers left fielder Andrew Toles dug out Zimmerman’s ball off the warning track.
“Coming into third, [I] see Bobby waving his hand, going for it,” Werth said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen in that situation. You got to make them make two good throws. And we’ve been aggressive ever since I’ve been here on that play. You live and die on those moments sometimes.”
Werth’s run was important. But Werth’s run wasn’t so important that it would score by will or by magic. Who knows which Henley was betting on?
Werth was out. Not in a bang-bang play. Not by five feet or 10. He was out by the gulf between (D) and (R).
Espinosa did not get to bat. The inning ended. Joc Pederson homered to end Scherzer’s night. The Dodgers scored four in the seventh. (Carlos Ruiz! Justin Turner!) Werth again would fail to score a runner from third with one out. Baker double-switched so many times that he ended up, needing a comeback, with a lineup lacking Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon but instead with Pedro Severino, Michael A. Taylor and Stephen Drew.
Parse it all. Bob Henley didn’t lose the game. But he didn’t help. And with that, he joins a growing list of characters from Nationals Octobers past.
“It’s not an overnight process,” Baker said. “You have to go through some pain. It’s not a very pleasant pain.”
It was hard, all those years having no baseball here. In some ways, on some nights, it’s harder having it.