No club in baseball means more to the sport than the New York Yankees, World Series champions 27 times over, a heady number for a franchise that is pursuing just one. So regardless of the Yankees’ current incarnation, a visit from New York is a chance to measure your own team, and when Ryan Zimmerman smoked a home run off the right field foul pole that provided a walk-off victory for the Nationals, the measure was this: On May 19, Washington pulled into a first-place tie with the New York Mets.
It was the Nationals’ first appearance atop the National League East all year, and they seemed ready to be measured against whoever might challenge.
When Zimmerman rounded third and headed for home, where he would be doused with a cooler full of water before he even touched the plate, Jayson Werth stood amongst a mass of his teammates, bouncing up and down in sneakers instead of spikes, wearing a sweatshirt instead of a jersey. There was no chance he would play, that night or the next or who knows how many more. As the Yankees took batting practice the next day, Werth sat on the top of the bench in the Nats’ dugout in red gym shorts and black shower slides. First pitch was approaching. Werth had nothing for which to prepare.
“I couldn’t even pick up a bat right now if I wanted,” Werth said.
He lifted his left arm and flexed his fingers, trying to ball them into a fist. Five days earlier, a San Diego Padres right-hander named Odrisamer Despaigne unleashed a 91-mph fastball. It nailed Werth directly in a guard that covered his left wrist. Those five days hadn’t calmed all the swelling.
This was the same wrist over which Werth rolled while trying to make a sliding catch three years earlier, costing him nearly three months of the 2012 season. It was the same wrist flame-throwing A.J. Burnett drilled in spring training of 2005, when Werth was with the Dodgers, creating enough problems that Werth struggled for a full season before missing all of 2006, his career nearly over before it really started.
So on the red-eye flight from California, Werth thought. Every outcome seemed possible. Here were the Yankees, baseball’s flagship franchise, in town to face a Nationals team that was favored for the World Series. He was 36. He had no clarity. Only perspective.
“If this is the end of my career, it’ll be sad, and I’ll be really upset,” Werth said. “But not nearly as upset as I’d have been in ’05. At least I’ve proved to everybody — and myself — that I can play at the elite level and be one of the best players in the game, and all the dreams that I’ve always had, I feel like I’ve pretty much accomplished them, or come close.
“So I’ve got great perspective. I’m at peace with myself, my career. I’ve won a World Series. I’ve been to jail. I’m still here. I can check all the boxes. And if this is it, then you know what? Screw it.”
He looked back down at his wrist, flexed his fingers again. His time in Washington began by signing a $126 million contract that doesn’t end until 2017. It already included two division titles. Indeed, he had been to court, then jail, the previous offseason as a result of driving his Porsche GT3 RS at least 105 mph as he zipped onto a ramp leading to the Capital Beltway on the Fourth of July. He had moved his family to McLean. He wanted to win in Washington. In Werth’s mind, his career wasn’t over.
“I don’t want it to be,” he said. “I feel like, you know, I’m in the right place at the right time to win a championship.”
Whether it was Werth or Anthony Rendon on the disabled list, Denard Span or Stephen Strasburg on a rehab assignment, Zimmerman or Doug Fister uncertain when he would play again, those championship expectations followed the Nationals through spring into summer. Yet each day, when Manager Matt Williams made out the lineup, his choices were limited.
The Nationals could find neither consistency nor cohesion. Werth hit in every position from first to seventh. Zimmerman hit everywhere from second to sixth. Ian Desmond hit in every spot except third and fourth. For so much of the first half of the season, there was no flow. General Manager Mike Rizzo stood one afternoon in the dugout, leaning against the bat rack with a cup of coffee in his hand. Problems? This was Rizzo’s job: Figure them out.
“We always have to look at contingencies: ‘What if this happens? What’s our Plan B? What’s our Plan C?’ ” Rizzo said. “I have to be two steps ahead of each and every injury that we have, each and every poor performance that we have and be ready to give the manager options.”
The implementation of Plans B and C extended back into the spring when Rendon, who led the NL in runs scored in 2014, first suffered a knee injury in a March 9 Grapefruit League game. That led not only to a slew of plane flights for Rendon to visit specialists in Florida and Colorado, but a meeting in Rizzo’s office at the club’s Viera, Fla., training facility.
A spring that commenced with Rizzo and Williams explaining to new acquisition Yunel Escobar, a shortstop by trade, that he must play second base for Washington was taking another turn. The Nationals could use utility man Danny Espinosa at third, but that would put two players — Espinosa and Escobar — out of position. Espinosa was a superior second baseman. So they needed Escobar to play third.
Rizzo called in backup catcher Jose Lobaton and explained the situation: They didn’t know when Rendon would be back. Lobaton needed to serve as an interpreter for Escobar, who grew up in Cuba and felt more comfortable hearing Spanish.
“We had to sell it to Lobaton,” Rizzo said, “so he could sell it to Escobar.”
The outline was simple: The move to third would actually be easier for Escobar because he would remain on the left side of the infield, because he wouldn’t have to turn the double play with a runner barreling up his backside. When Rizzo left the meeting, he called Escobar’s agent and explained, quite plainly, that everyone had to push Escobar into accepting his second move of the spring.
“It’s our job to adjust,” Rizzo said.
Thus began a season of adjustments. By the time Werth sat in the dugout as the Yankees took batting practice May 20, Escobar was the Nationals’ most successful first-half project, a .333 hitter who could fill in Werth’s third spot in the batting order. That night, Tyler Moore would play left field in place of Werth, Espinosa would play second in place of Rendon. Each day, there seemed to be a new outsider on the inside, a player walking through the clubhouse to his locker, a uniform hanging on a hook, but nothing on his schedule but rehab and rest, rehab and rest.
“It’s a weird, empty feeling, said Span, the center fielder who himself had missed all of spring training and the first few weeks of the season following surgery on a sports hernia.
“You don’t even feel like you’re part of the team,” Werth said. “It sucks.”
He slid off the dugout bench and scuffled down the stairs into the clubhouse. The Yankees finished batting practice. The grounds crew sprayed down the infield. And underneath the stands, Bryce Harper took swings in a batting cage.
In the third inning of that night’s game, Harper watched a pitch from New York right-hander Adam Warren, a slider that seemed to come in below his knees, without swinging. At that moment, Harper was on a historic run, one that made him, in Williams’s eyes, “the best player on the planet.” His previous dozen games yielded 10 home runs, 23 RBI, a .535 batting average, .630 on-base percentage and an absurd 1.349 slugging percentage.
With Werth and Rendon out, the Nationals’ lineup wasn’t whole. With Desmond hitting .244 and Zimmerman .242, with eight homers between them, important cogs weren’t clicking. Yet Washington had won 10 of its past 12 largely because of Harper. At 22, he had become not just the focus of the Nationals, but the focus of an entire sport.
So when that slider whistled into the catcher’s mitt, and umpire Marvin Hudson called it a strike, the result was not only eye-rolling from Harper in the batter’s box, but chirps from the Nationals’ dugout. Williams was aware of how disciplined Harper had been to get to that point, how tough it was for him not to unleash his violent swing at borderline pitches. He protected his star, suddenly behind in the count.
Before Warren could throw his next pitch, Hudson removed his mask and started yelling back at Williams and hitting coach Rick Schu. Harper stepped out of the box. When Hudson told him to get back in, Harper ran and put his toe in the corner of the box as if to say, “This is where I was!” — and Hudson ejected him. Williams roared out of the dugout. Hudson tossed him, too.
“I don’t think 40,000 people came to watch him ump tonight,” Harper said afterward.
Here were, then, all aspects of Harper on full display, his talent and his temper, the sport’s new lightning rod. Believing that Hudson had baited Harper, the Nationals filed a protest with the league office. Standing outside the clubhouse on a cement ramp that led to the massive garage door through which the team buses pull, Rizzo fumed afterward.
“We’re not going to take that [stuff]!” he seethed.
Of all those involved, Harper seemed to have the best perspective. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a teenager. He knew, since then, that he would be the focal point of whatever game he played in at whichever level he toiled, high school or junior college, Class A or the majors. His every smirk would be assigned meaning. Toss his helmet, like he did one July night against Cincinnati after Reds third baseman Todd Frazier made a diving stop to erase a hit? He’d have to explain that, too.
“It’s like, ‘Golly. Come on. I crushed that, and no hit?’ ” Harper said. “And that’s not ego. It’s not, ‘I got to get a hit. I got to get a hit.’ I just want to get on base so we can win a ballgame. Come on. If it’s down the line, it’s a double, I’m on second base, [Wilson] Ramos is coming up. We got something started.
“So people see that, throwing the helmet, but they don’t know I want to play hard. I want to do things the right way. I want to win.”
Even as Harper’s talent exploded and his approach to hitting matured, he was an acquired taste, even in his own clubhouse. Werth — 14 years older, a father of two, at a completely different stage of his life — tweaked Harper still. Not mean spirited. In a way, he was a kindred spirit. When Werth was younger, he’d bristle when Charlie Manuel, his manager in Philadelphia, would tell him, “In five or six years, you’re gonna be a really good player.” Now, though, he understood the meaning: Don’t think you’ve arrived, kid. So he turned it on Harper, a mantra: “In 10 years, you’re gonna be a really good player.”
“Once he learns everything that he needs to learn, he settles in even more than he is now, he’ll be a consistent big league player, year in, year out, and he’ll be fine,” Werth said. “He’ll be revered by his teammates. He might not be there yet, totally. But he’s fine. He might rub other teams the wrong way. He might rub guys in the clubhouse the wrong way from time to time.
“But we all know him now. He can just relax and be himself. He’s been accepted, for better or worse. We can call a spade a spade. So I think that in itself makes it easier on him, knowing that even at his worst, he knows how he’s going to be treated. At his best, he knows how he’s going to be treated. He can take criticism better now. At first, he was really tough to talk to, because he didn’t want to hear what you had to say. He didn’t want the lecture. I understood that. I was the same way. There’s a way to approach him.”
In his fourth full season in the majors, Harper had learned, too, how to approach the game. If he didn’t see a strike, he wouldn’t swing. If he didn’t get a hit in one at-bat, he wouldn’t press harder in the next. Growing up in Las Vegas, Harper used to brush off his frustrations by saying, “I don’t care.” That infuriated his father, Ron, who would shoot back, “You do care.”
So as his breakout season developed, Harper repurposed the saying, a motto he shared with Desmond: “It don’t matter.” Taken literally, it might seem flippant. To Harper and Desmond, it meant that whatever adversity just past or just ahead, their job was to survive.
“As long as you’re going out there playing, it don’t matter,” Harper said. “It doesn’t matter how you’re feeling. Doesn’t matter what you’re doing, how you’re hitting, how you’re fielding. As long as you’re out there, it don’t matter — you can come back the next day and win a ballgame.”
One July night in Pittsburgh, with the Nationals trailing by four runs, Harper came up for what seemed like a meaningless eighth-inning at-bat. The Pirates brought in lefty Antonio Bastardo specifically because Harper might be up in the inning. Bastardo started Harper with a fastball, barely in the zone, and Harper fouled it off. He came with another fastball, and Harper swung through it.
From the dugout, Desmond yelled, “Come on, Big Kid!” Harper heard him. The message: 0-2, with two lousy swings? It don’t matter.
“You could see him turning the fight on,” Desmond said. “You’d think that those at-bats don’t matter. But at that particular time, the fact that he was 0-2 didn’t matter. He had to fight, and he fought.”
Harper worked the count to 2-2, then ripped a single to right-center. “That’s part of him growing up,” Desmond said.
On June 19, Harper sat out the opener of a three-game series against the Pirates at Nationals Park. The next day, he got back in there, even though tough lefty Francisco Liriano threw for Pittsburgh. In the fourth inning, Harper drilled a Liriano pitch onto the grassy slope in center field, his 23rd home run, a career high before June was over.
That day, though, would be remembered not for Harper’s home run. Rather, when a ball off the bat of Pittsburgh leadoff hitter Josh Harrison settled into the glove of Washington left fielder Michael A. Taylor, the Nationals ran to the center of the diamond and engulfed Max Scherzer. The right-hander, at that very moment, might have been the best pitcher in baseball, worth the $210 million the Nationals had committed to him in the offseason. Harrison’s flyball completed Scherzer’s first no-hitter, and the Nationals surrounded him, pulling at his jersey, taking turns with hugs. Washington had briefly fallen behind the Mets in the standings. Scherzer’s gem returned them to the top of the division.
In the middle of that the mob stood Stephen Strasburg, his eyes hidden behind wraparound shades. His high-five and embrace exchanged, Strasburg took some steps to the edge of the circle as his teammates moved in. His ERA, at the moment, was 6.55. He was not on the active roster. His season stood in disarray. He was on the outside, looking in.
Three days before Scherzer no-hit the Pirates, before he thrust himself into the middle of the conversation about who should start the All-Star Game, the man for whom all that was projected pulled on a red hat bearing a blue “H,” a white jersey with the name “Senators” scrawled across it, a minor league game in a minor league city ahead.
At one point, this was supposed to be Stephen Strasburg’s pitching staff, Stephen Strasburg’s team. But by June, Harper — the No. 1 pick in the draft the year after Strasburg — had surpassed him. Harper was a star. Strasburg was . . . what?
Strasburg started on opening day in 2012, ’13 and 2014 — every season in which he was healthy. He was replaced by Scherzer for the 2015 opener. Strasburg started Game 1 of the 2014 playoffs and would have been the easy choice to do the same in 2012 — had he not been prohibited from pitching, a decision made by the Nationals to protect his long-term health, they said then and they say now, because he was coming back from ligament replacement surgery on his right elbow.
But with Scherzer reeling off a 16-strikeout one-hitter in Milwaukee, then the no-hitter against Pittsburgh, Strasburg found some measure of obscurity on his own staff. Obscurity was better than where he had been, though, and that was pitching worse than at any point in his career. More than any player, Strasburg had signaled the arrival of Washington as a baseball town. Before the two division titles and the talk of the World Series, Strasburg’s debut in 2010 was the Nationals’ seminal moment.
“When you think of Stephen Strasburg, that’s what you think of,” Werth said. “When he’s healthy, that’s who he is.”
Just as the lineup was enduring injuries and poor performance, Strasburg dented the rotation with both. On March 22, while working out in the weight room at the club’s spring training headquarters, he rolled his left ankle, spraining it. He threw just 15 innings of Grapefruit League play, and though he made his first start of the season, he wasn’t right. He allowed six runs in his first outing, five in his second. As he completed just 15 innings through his first four starts of May, he never mentioned the ankle as an issue. The Nationals believed it was the root of his problems.
“The ankle affected his delivery,” Rizzo said. “Of course it did. He tried to pitch through it. You’re talking about a guy who pitched 215 innings last year. He was durable, and there for us. That’s who he would be if his body would allow him to perform.”
So when he came out of his start May 29 start in Cincinnati with neck tightness, the Nationals put him on the DL. They had, essentially, allowed a pitcher who wasn’t physically fit to take the mound for 10 starts, starts in which he allowed opposing hitters a .325 average. Seven of those starts ended up as Washington losses.
“We share some responsibility in that,” Rizzo said.
That all led Strasburg to Harrisburg, Pa., in mid-June, a Class AA start to try to build himself back into the pitcher the Nationals needed him to be. Fairly or not, Strasburg’s career with the Nationals will always be cast against his status as the first overall selection in the 2009 draft, against that first night at Nationals Park, with the flashbulbs popping and the 14 Pirates sent back to the bench, including the last seven men he faced, all strikeout victims. Internally, the Nationals viewed this as unfair.
“What else do you want him to do?” Rizzo pleaded, because Strasburg had thrown those 215 innings in 2014, had tied for the NL lead in strikeouts, had made every one of his starts. It got to the point where Steve McCatty, his pitching coach for his entire major league career, grew reluctant to talk about his pupil because whatever he said sounded like a defense.
If any of this affected Strasburg, he wouldn’t reveal it. Not to the media. Not to the public. Not even to his teammates. But the pressures weren’t fabricated.
“Expectations and pressure that you put on yourself, and other people put on you, and comfort and all those things that you hear people talk about,” Werth said. “it’s a real thing.”
On June 16, Harper went 3 for 3 with a double and a homer, lifting his average to .346, continuing his ascension as one of the game’s best players. That evening, Strasburg drove the 2 hours and 15 minutes from Washington up I-270 to U.S. 15 to join the Harrisburg Senators. The next morning, he woke early for a noon game, downed a coffee to get himself going and drove under brilliantly sunny skies to an empty ballpark. Dressed in that “H” hat and Senators jersey, he walked slowly with catcher Brian Jerolomon and pitching coach Chris Michalak to the bullpen to warm up, merely trying to find himself. The other Harrisburg pitchers gathered around, watching intently.
“I think he’s, at times, hard on himself,” Harrisburg Manager Brian Daubach said that day. “He wants to be the best.”
He threw 71 pitches that afternoon, overpowering some hitters, striking out six and walking none, hitting 98 mph with his fastball as Doug Harris, one of Rizzo’s chief lieutenants, watched from behind the plate. He gave up one earned run in five innings and took the loss. The result didn’t matter. Rediscovering his mechanics, and therefore his confidence, did.
“Once I can stop thinking about it, I can just go out and compete,” Strasburg said afterward. “I think there was only a couple times where I had to kind of take a step back and remember what the focus was.”
Thus, the focus for the Nationals through June, through the All-Star Game — at which Harper and Scherzer were their only representatives — and into the second half, became a version of Strasburg reestablishing himself. They had to get themselves whole, remind themselves who they were.
Strasburg came back to the majors June 23. That afternoon, Zimmerman sat in the Nationals’ dugout in a blue T-shirt, two hours before first pitch against Atlanta, only time to kill. His left foot ached from a condition called plantar fasciitis, the swelling of a thick band of tissue that ran across his sole. He had played with it since late April, but his throbbing heel affected his ability to run. On one sure double to the right field corner, “I barely rounded first.” It affected his power. During batting practice, he drilled a ball to right-center and felt sure it would sail into the seats. It barely reached the warning track. From the last day of May through June 9, he had one hit in 25 at-bats. He was hitting .209. He went on the DL.
“You almost look at it that maybe if it just happens now we’ll be healthy by the end of the year,” he said. “Or at least that’s what you tell yourself, to make yourself feel better.”
With Strasburg returning to the mound to face Atlanta, though, the Nationals could feel just fine about things — given their physical condition. Zimmerman was out. Werth was out. Yet they were coming off a sweep of Pittsburgh, would sweep the Braves, would win eight in a row to build a 3
“I think we’ve overachieved with the record we have given the lineup we’ve put out there,” Rizzo said.
When they swept the Giants over Fourth of July weekend, the Nationals were 10 games over .500, 41/2 games up. The issues they had seemed manageable, even as Rendon ended up back on the DL with a strained quadriceps, even as Span joined him there with a bad back, even as Desmond’s batting average dipped to .204.
When Scherzer took the mound July 12, the last day before the all-star break, too, he further secured his status as Washington’s ace, tossing 82/3 innings of two-run ball to beat the Orioles. Yet Strasburg couldn’t follow his rotation’s new tone-setter. He was out again — this time with a strained oblique muscle — and back on the DL. Scherzer had to carry the staff.
“He’s the leader of the rotation,” Rizzo said. “We figured he would be when we signed him.”
Even that status, though, brought a modicum of worry. When Scherzer left for Cincinnati and the All-Star Game after beating the Orioles, he had logged 132 innings, more than any other NL pitcher, more than he had thrown before the break in his career. His appearance against Baltimore was by design, because the Nationals weren’t going to allow him to pitch in the All-Star Game — an exhibition — when he could pitch for them. And their concern about his workload was apparent when they began the second half with Jordan Zimmermann, then Fister, then Scherzer against the Dodgers.
That alignment of the rotation meant Scherzer wouldn’t face the Mets in a pair of series in late July, the first in Washington, the second in New York. Yet with a two-game lead at the break, the Nationals felt like they could dictate terms of the race. Against the Los Angeles Dodgers in his first post-break appearance, Scherzer gave up just one run in his six innings before Williams lifted him for a pinch hitter.
The July 31 trade deadline was approaching, and Rizzo was involved in a variety of discussions. A year earlier, with the Nationals in first place, Rizzo felt obliged to make some sort of move because Zimmerman was out with a badly torn hamstring, so he dealt for Cleveland infielder Asdrubal Cabrera, who helped Washington secure the division. In 2015, Rizzo did his due diligence the same way. He thought Milwaukee’s Gerardo Parra, a left-handed hitter whom he had helped develop when both were with Arizona, might help balance the lineup with Werth, Rendon, Zimmerman and Span out.
But he also kept coming back to one thought.
“The trades we make at the deadline are gonna be: We’re getting Werth back and Span back and Zimmerman back and Anthony back and Stras back,” Rizzo said. “So those are all additions that we feel great about. You’re not going to make a trade for any players better than those guys.”
Those players, though, couldn’t address one chronic, season-long concern: the bullpen. On the day of Scherzer’s start against the Dodgers, Blake Treinen gave up four runs in the top of the ninth, basically eliminating any chance the Nationals had of winning. Not only had Treinen not seized the eighth-inning role the Nationals had hoped for him when the year began, but he couldn’t be trusted to pitch in close games whether the Nats were ahead or behind. He threw the ball 98 mph but couldn’t retire left-handed hitters. The next day, he was sent to the minors, replaced by Abel De Los Santos, a 22-year-old who had never pitched above Class AA.
So with the Nationals’ relievers struggling to find consistent roles, the conventional wisdom became that Rizzo needed one more arm, a setup guy for closer Drew Storen. On July 22, Storen pitched the ninth inning of a 4-3 victory over the Mets, his 29th save in 31 opportunities, a scoreless frame that dropped his ERA to 1.73 and put the Nats three games up on New York. Yet with the trade deadline approaching, Rizzo knew one thing others didn’t: When the bullpen door swung open in the ninth inning, he wanted the person who ran through to put his mind and his stomach at ease. Storen didn’t. He wanted a closer.
About this series: The Washington Nationals had the most wins in the National League in 2014 and headed into the 2015 season as World Series favorites. With expectations high, Post national baseball writer Barry Svrluga spoke to several key members of the organization throughout the season to document their thoughts and emotions in real time, with the understanding they would be not published until the team’s fate was determined.
More on the Nationals from Barry Svrluga:
Destiny Denied: The rise and fall of the 2015 Nationals
Part 1: With expectations high, the Nats stumble out of the gate
Part 2: Bryce Harper emerges as a superstar
Part 3: Nats get their closer, and the team unravels
The Grind: A six-part series on a baseball season’s relentless grind