Outside the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse late Monday night, in a subterranean tunnel, Wilson Ramos’s wife sat alone, looking at a concrete wall. Max Scherzer came out of the locker room and paused, as if trying to think of something to say. But he couldn’t and walked out to the wet parking lot on a rainy night.
What words were going to help? Just an hour or so earlier, the Nationals’ all-star catcher injured his right knee badly. As he lay on the ground, crumpled into a ball and grimacing, Ramos pointed at his right knee, on which he underwent anterior cruciate ligament surgery four years ago. Two trainers had to help him off the field. On Tuesday, the brutal verdict was rendered: another ACL surgery, and out for the year.
In 10 days, Scherzer was supposed to open the National League Division Series pitching to his .307-hitting catcher, the popular player called the Buffalo, who has 22 homers, 80 RBI, and many fans who wear goofy horns and chant “Wilson, Wilson” when he comes to bat. They could reasonably dream of beating the Los Angeles Dodgers, then taking their chances in the NL Championship Series, probably against the Chicago Cubs, to go to the World Series.
Not long ago, Ramos turned down a three-year, $30 million offer from the Nats, presumably because he assumed he might get twice that much for five years from some American League team. What now?
The Nats had five all-stars this season, the most in team history. Four of them are injured. Stephen Strasburg may not pitch again this year with a flexor mass strain in his pitching forearm. Daniel Murphy has missed the past eight games because of, honestly, a pain in the butt after his typical headfirst slide into second base on his 47th double. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting the same good result is sanity. Except if you’re a Nat.
On Saturday, the Nats celebrated clinching their third NL East flag in five seasons, a period in which they have beaten foes by the largest margin in baseball and have the second-best record in the game. But one day later, Bryce Harper injured his thumb on a classic dirty play by Pirates third baseman Jung Ho Kang, whose fake tag deked Harper into a dangerously awkward headfirst slide. That led to a bench-clearing discussion on how the Pirates managed to miss 100 years of memos on unwritten rules.
The Nats’ fifth all-star, Scherzer, was slated to pitch Tuesday night. Maybe he should have worn armor.
“Of all the guys — to have that happen to him. I don’t know, man, just seems so unfair,” Jayson Werth said of Ramos, whose career has been one of the unluckiest in his baseball generation.
He was kidnapped one offseason in his native Venezuela and rescued in a machine-gun battle. He broke a hamate bone on Opening Day in 2014.
And then there were the multiple injuries to knees and hamstrings that shortened other seasons.
“Murphy and Harper look like they are going to be okay for the playoffs. But Willie is a tough man to replace,” Werth said. “I hate that expression ‘snake bit,’ but that’s how it feels.”
The Nats, with their history of waves of injuries, blown leads in playoff games, a couple of chokes under pressure and a general Cloud of Crummy Karma as soon as the calendar approaches autumn, are a torment even to themselves.
“Wilson’s taken his fair share of lumps, that’s for sure,” Werth said. Then he thought, looked up and said, “We all have.”
The man who made the high, weak throw to home was first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who has hurt his shoulder so often, then played through pain with cortisone shots in pennant races, that he doesn’t throw the ball so much as he attempts to synchronize all of the things that don’t work properly in his arm until he can launch a toss-lob that’s painful — to watch.
Because the Nats are in a narrow, vital battle with the Dodgers for home-field advantage, they have had no reasonable alternative except to play their regulars almost every day. That’s why Baker was correct to have Ramos in the lineup Monday. The Nats entered Tuesday with just a dwindling one-game lead, and the Dodgers own the tiebreaker (head-to-head record).
Home field always matters, but against the Dodgers that’s doubly true because the Nats would face ace Clayton Kershaw in Games 1 and (if necessary) 5. The past two years, Kershaw’s ERA at Dodger Stadium in 27 starts is 1.44 with a 19-4 record. On the road, in 26 starts, he is 9-6 with a 2.48 ERA. He has given up more than twice as many homers on the road as at home. In Chavez Ravine, Kershaw is a stat clone of Sandy Koufax in his prime at Dodger Stadium. On the road, Kershaw is better than Tanner Roark, but not by a lot. Is that enough motivation for this week?
“Nobody is going to feel sorry for us. Next man up. Nothing you can do and you gotta play,” Manager Dusty Baker said. “It’s a big blow when it’s somebody of that caliber. . . . Worrying does no good. . . . We have to figure out a way to play without Wilson. . . . I’ve been mixing and matching [lineups] my whole [managing] career.”
Ever had four of your five all-stars hurt at the same time? “No,” Baker said, quickly adding that he expects Murphy and Harper back soon. “My father told me never to say, ‘What else can go wrong?’ because something always can,” Baker added. “Those thoughts come to everybody, but you have to dispel them and figure a way to get out of this mess.”
As Baker walked back to his office, someone mentioned that in the playoffs the decisive offensive player can be anybody. Obscure .255 career journeyman Scott Spiezio of the Angels had 19 RBI in 16 games in the 2002 postseason to beat Baker’s Giants in the World Series. Travis Ishikawa, a desperation third-string left fielder, had seven RBI in five NLCS games to boost the 2014 Giants toward a title.
Baker put his hands together in front of his chest as if in prayer and said, “Please.” Then he walked through his office door. Inside, waiting for him, was one big, piping-hot mess.