Washington Nationals fans begin to ask: Could this be our year?
By Dan Steinberg,
Shortly after midnight on Wednesday, Washington Nationals reserve center fielder Roger Bernadina disappeared into the deep and angular recesses of center field in Houston’s Minute Maid Park, only to emerge with scuffed pants, the baseball and a grin.
During the ensuing hysteria on social media sites, Nats fan Andrew Shapiro wrote that his favorite team was blessed by “black magic.” Adam Bayes decided the catch “summed up the season.” And Jay Anderson argued that “when you win games like this, a World Series almost seems like destiny.”
That sentiment coursed through the region on Wednesday, as the Nats won for the fifth straight time and Washington’s crush on its first winning baseball team in 43 years deepened. Whether this relationship blossoms into the sort of romance New York had with the Mets in 1969 or Boston with the Red Sox in 2004 remains to be seen, but it’s certainly becoming something more memorable than a summer fling.
“I’m pretty much 100 percent in the camp that I think this [Nats] team is special,” host Eric Bickel said on 106.7 The Fan. The region’s other sports-talk station, ESPN 980, ran a poll asking if Bernadina’s catch was the best in franchise history.
Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner wrote on his blog about the emotions of a pennant race, joking that “my early impression is that it is equal parts pleasure and agony.” And fans working on consecutive nights of Nats-shortened sleep prepared for another week of games outside the Eastern time zone. After wrapping up their series in Houston on Thursday night, the Nats move on to Arizona and San Francisco before returning to Washington.
“This weekend with the West Coast [trip] is probably gonna be the death of me,” said Kristy Anderson, a 33-year-old public health advocate from Arlington. “But if you go to bed early, you miss plays like the last two nights. . . . It’s just a really exciting time to be a Nats fan right now. It’s uncharted territory.”
Indeed, Bernadina’s extraordinary catch fit into a season’s worth of unexpected entertainment. Monday night, Washington won in 11 innings when a bunt by newcomer Kurt Suzuki was mangled so badly by the Astros that Bernadina scored from first base. Saturday against the Miami Marlins, the Nats trailed by two runs four separate times before rallying for six runs in the eighth inning. The previous Sunday, the Nats erased a four-run deficit in Milwaukee, tying the game in the ninth and winning it in the 11th.
“I mean, they keep coming back; there have been four or five times where, in the past couple seasons, I would have just completely written them off,” said Potomac native Adam Mael, a 22-year-old fan now living in Ann Arbor, Mich. “I can tell you that the past few years, a lot of games like that I would have turned off in the third inning.”
A more cynical fan might take a more cynical view. Washington, after all, has baseball’s best record, while the Astros have comically stumbled to the National League’s worst mark. Shouldn’t the Nats have polished off such a bumbling foe without the extra-inning tension and the post-midnight dramatics?
“It’s actually a positive the way they’ve won those games,” disagreed Kevin Millar, a veteran of that 2004 Red Sox team and now a co-host of MLB Network’s “International Talk.” “The Nationals need to win games like that. They need to test themselves in extra innings. They need to make plays like Bernadina did. They need to get a big hit late in the game with two outs. It’s a testament to what that team’s about.”
And in truth, the Nats have thus far fared better the wider a game’s margin. The team’s winning percentage in games decided by three or more runs is a major league-best .717, compared with just .421 in two-run games and .553 in one-run games.
Bernadina was the latest unlikely hero for a club that’s received a string of clutch contributions from B-listers. Journeyman Chad Tracy, who spent last season in Japan, has excelled as a pinch hitter. Former top pitcher John Lannan, exiled to the team’s minor league outpost in Syracuse, has delivered two huge starts over the past month when called up to pitch in doubleheaders. Even since-released players such as Xavier Nady and Rick Ankiel have helped win games.
But the Nats have undeniable talent, too, which is why ESPN analyst Rick Sutcliffe picked them in February to go to the World Series.
“There were just a lot of really nice pieces to the puzzle there,” Sutcliffe, a longtime major league pitcher, said on Wednesday. “From the middle of May on, they’ve expected to win. It’s not like they’re going out there hoping to win. They truly expect it. And that’s how you’re able to come back and do things like they’ve done the last couple of nights.”
The fans are starting to expect it, too. Kristy Anderson is prepared to put down her deposit for playoff tickets on Friday. Shapiro, a bar manager, said patrons ask him nightly to switch televisions to the Nats games, “and we’re not even a sports bar.” Jay Anderson is already imagining the souvenirs. “All these plays you’re seeing over these last few weeks are going to show up in the highlight reel on the commemorative DVD, I absolutely believe that,” he said.
And Bayes, a 32-year-old consultant from Ashburn, voiced a sentiment many Nats fans have surely felt in recent days: “The season seems meant to be.”
“It’s like a movie that’s already been written, and we’re watching it, and we don’t know what the ending is going to be,” he said. “I don’t know if I want to fast forward to the end and see what happens, or just keep enjoying it. Because this is the group of players that in 20 years, we’re still going to talk about. This is the group of guys that’s gonna be remembered as the first real team.”
Gonzalez goes the distance in win Bernadina saves the night