On Tuesday, Dr. Frankenstein Rizzo decided to shock his monster. Now, Nationals fans will find out whether his stitched-together creation, with the Anthony Rendon, Ian Krol and Jayson Werth pieces added and the Danny Espinosa, Henry Rodriguez and Zach Duke parts lopped off, awakens to pillage the NL East village or just continues to lie inert on its slab.
“It wasn’t for the jolt scenario,” said Rizzo after the Nats released Rodriguez and Duke, probably ending their Washington careers.
You can be sure H-Rod, who threw 102 mph on Saturday, but seldom over the plate, and Duke (8.71 ERA) felt like they’d been electrocuted. Rodriguez final Nats line: 113 innings, 112 strikeouts, 83 walks and 26 wild pitches, one of which hit the screen, bounced back and almost nailed him.
Rizzo also sent Espinosa, a fixture at second base for nearly 400 games, to the disabled list, adding that he’ll eventually go to the minors to work on his .158 hitting. “I love him. He thinks I hate him,” said Manager Davey Johnson. “This is the best for him. He needs to get things worked out.”
The DL designation is partly cosmetic to cover Espinosa’s hitting problems the past two years. The proud Espinosa likely views this not just as “get healthy” but as being ordered to the minors, too. That is the news he has has dreaded and resisted. He has played hurt in part out of fear that if Rendon got entrenched at second base he might be there for, roughly, eternity.
For one of the team’s brighter prospects of recent years, this Espinosa departure, even if temporary, sends a message that may energize or chill teammates. Will his bonds with the team ever be as strong again? No one played hurt more often. This gets you sent back to Class AAA?
You can be sure the day’s moves were a jolt to Rendon, too. He was just moved up to Class AAA Syracuse on Friday — and put at second base. He has torn up the Arizona Fall League (.338), spring training (.375) and AA (.319). In his second call-up this season, he may be ready to stick. The Nats didn’t pay him $7.2 million to sign and give him a single-digit uniform (No. 6) because they doubted his future. For the third-worst offense in MLB, Rendon is the day’s biggest hope. But he’s also its biggest risk if pressure stifles his development or he gets hurt learning a new position. Since Little League, he’s played eight games at second.
Rendon turns 23 Thursday. Nats to Anthony: Happy birthday. Get a hit.
Utility man Steve Lombardozzi, from Columbia, feels like his hair is standing straight up from high hopes, too. He started at second base Tuesday night and, with open auditions as far as the eye sees, he delivered a walk-off sacrifice fly in the bottom of the ninth inning to give the Nationals a 3-2 victory.
For the Nats first dogpile of the year, Espinosa’s replacement was the beneficiary. “By no means did we win this game because those guys were not here,” said Ian Desmond, who homered in the second and doubled in the ninth to set up the winning run. “I wish they were here to celebrate with us.”
But they aren’t, largely because this was such a perfect symbolic day for a GM to stage a shakeup of a contender that lacked life. With team leader Werth back from 33 days on the disabled list, the Nats faced a superb opportunity, playing 36 of 39 games against teams that have had losing records over the ’12 and ’13 seasons combined. The Nats had ace Jordan Zimmermann to face a Mets team that was just swept by the stinky Marlins.
So for the Nats, Tuesday night felt like a kind of Opening Day II. When teams know that a season of high expectations is slipping away they can do one of three things: fire the manager, make a trade or ship out the miscreants and bring up hot kids in the minors. The Nats picked “C,” even though it always has an undercurrent of scapegoat desperation.
Their own nerves have unstrung the Nationals all season. Some problems, like Zimmerman’s wild throws on routine plays, can’t be solved with a DFA or call-up. But three symbols of their futility have been Espinosa’s flailing strikeouts, Rodriguez tragicomic wildness and the utter ineffectiveness of Duke as the team’s only lefty reliever. All three were accompanied by their own doom-approaches soundtrack. Rizzo silenced it.
The Nats now face a genuine crisis of self-confidence and poise. By the all-star break in six weeks, the Nats will be six-to-10 games over .500 with their season firmly back on track if they play as they think they should. The six roster moves on Tuesday will be hailed as the perfect personnel tonic.
Or, if they continue to play as they have all season, the Nats will continue to be one of baseball’s biggest disappointments.
The first chapter of the Rizzo rewrite was a smash hit, but barely. The Nats trailed 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth before staging their first come-from-behind win after the sixth inning all season. It took until Game 58.
Can obscure midseason roster moves really work, even those that seem a bit desperate? On the last day of July in ’07, two Phillies outfielders were hurt the same day. The Phils tried to swing a deal for a slugger before the trade deadline. It died. They sank to A-Ball for a journeyman outfielder that was 1-for-16 on a rehab assignment. It was Werth. He hit .414 for August, including a 9-for-9. stretch “It was the resurrection of my career,” he said last night.
The Phils rallied to win the NL East and a power was born with Werth as a key piece. “I’m the guy who knows roster moves like this can work,” laughed Werth. Was this day, this win a spark for the Nats? Fire to follow?
“We will see,” said Werth. “But it absolutely can.”
For more by Thomas Boswell, go to washingtonpost.com/boswell.