After their 149th game last season, the Washington Nationals gave this city its first playoff team in 79 years. At the same juncture this season, the Nationals have provided no such joy, only glimpses of what could have made up a playoff team. And one such piece is their power-hitting catcher who missed most of last season’s run with a knee injury and two months this season with hamstring strains.
The Nationals cling to the hope that this season’s remaining games still might matter. They are playing their best baseball over the past month, and it is a stretch that has been fueled, in part, by the resolve and production of Wilson Ramos. Starting behind the plate for the 23rd straight game Sunday, the longest such streak in the majors this season, Ramos matched a career high with five RBI in the Nationals’ 11-2 thrashing of the Philadelphia Phillies.
The Nationals have won 25 of their past 35 and eight of nine. The stretch has made them relevant again after nearly a season’s worth of underachievement. As Bryce Harper talked with reporters in the clubhouse after Sunday’s win, Milwaukee’s Sean Halton smashed a walk-off homer off Reds reliever Zach Duke, a former National, that trimmed the Nats’ deficit to 41 / 2 games behind the Reds for the second wild-card spot with 13 to play. Cheers erupted and smiling players huddled around televisions.
“We have to keep fighting,” Ramos said. “We’re in the race for the wild card, and I want to keep helping the team to win games. I lost last year the opportunity to play in the playoffs because I had knee surgery, and this year I want to help the team to make the playoffs and enjoy that moment.”
Jordan Zimmermann overpowered the Phillies with seven strong innings to notch his National League-leading 18th win, allowing only two runs on seven hits and striking out seven. The Nationals matched a season high by pounding out 18 hits. Every starter notched a hit. Even Zimmermann delivered an RBI single in a three-run fourth inning.
Harper added three hits, Ian Desmond drove in three runs and Denard Span extended his hitting streak to 26 games. A pigeon flying around the field that momentarily distracted Span and first plate umpire Jim Wolf in the eighth inning may have been the only thing to slow the Nationals.
No one proved to be more of a roadblock to Philadelphia’s pitchers than Ramos.
He smacked three run-scoring singles and drilled a towering solo home run in the sixth inning, his 15th, to set a Nationals single-season record for homers by a catcher. He accomplished the feat in only 68 games, having missed 58 games with two hamstring strains.
“I saw him when he was in Minnesota coming up as a kid and in spring training, and there’s no question,” Span said of Ramos. “If he can stay healthy, he can be one of the best catchers in baseball.”
Ramos, 26, never set out to break any records this season; he just wanted to play after missing 137 games last year. After the two setbacks with the hamstring injuries this year, he vowed to prove to the Nationals he could remain healthy. He did so, and in late August they traded away fellow backstop Kurt Suzuki, who hit .222 in 79 games.
“You can get labeled as injury prone,” Nationals Manager Davey Johnson said. “And for him to come back and catch as good and as often as he has just proves his point. He’s durable.”
Ramos started 18 straight games before he learned Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina had the longest stretch behind the plate this season with 22, so he set a new goal for himself. He had slimmed down from his 250-pound frame during his knee rehab by eating salads and lean meats, reasoning a leaner body would put less pressure on the strengthening knee.
But Desmond pointed out to Ramos that he had never hurt his legs when he was 250 pounds instead of 220. So during his stretch of 23 straight games, Ramos ate everything he wanted — pasta and more importantly arepas, a corn patty filled with cheese or meat from his native Venezuela. He felt stronger, and his play on the field didn’t let up.
“Every day I eat arepa, I can play every day,” he said with a smile.
With steady playing time, Ramos has always felt more comfortable anyway. Ramos’s batting average in the previous 22 games may have been only .226, but he has provided plenty of power. He has driven in 24 runs during this 23-game stretch, including seven home runs. His four hits Sunday matched a career high. In only 68 games this season, Ramos has driven in 55 runs, fifth most on the Nationals.
“That was a hard thing for me when I pulled my hamstring twice, but I never put my head down,” he said. “I stayed working all the time, and for me, I know I can help this team to win a lot of games.”
Ramos refuses to think about what the season could have held for him had he remained healthy. But his manager couldn’t help but wonder how differently the Nationals’ season might have been if their power-hitting catcher was behind the plate for an entire season.
“That’s 100 RBIs and 28 bombs,” Johnson said. “Huge difference. He’s been missed. Suzuki did a great job, but he couldn’t, wasn’t the kind of player Ramos [is]. Ramos is a really strong number one. One of the best catchers in the league.”
The lingering question with Ramos now is when he will get a day off. Johnson has allowed Ramos to play because his bat is difficult to replace. Before Sunday’s game, Ramos said he wanted to rest him Monday after the catching mark was reached. But with a three-game series against the Braves next, he wouldn’t commit after the game to resting him. Johnson said he would talk with Ramos.
“I hate to take that weapon out of the lineup. Maybe after Atlanta leaves,” Johnson said.