At times, the transformations of baseball destiny seem preposterous. A year and a day ago, the Phillies’ three-game invasion of Nationals Park finally ended. More than 120,000 fans attended, including the biggest crowd in Nationals Park history (44,685), with the majority of them rowdy and rooting for the Phillies. The Phils were on their way to 102 wins, the most in a team history that dates back to 1883, the Chester A. Arthur administration.
That was an adult-beverage zenith for Phils fans, who arrived in buses with suds up to the windows, but a sobering low-water mark for the Nationals. Out-cheered and jeered in their own park, the Nats were still 60-64 losers, even though they won that series two games to one with one in a walk-off. Was that the first shot of a revolution?
Now, it’s the Nats who are on pace for 101 wins. The Phils are 20 games behind and trading away stars. On Wednesday night at Nats Park, the Atlanta Braves, who’d lost the first two games of this series, were so desperate for a spark that they benched three stars — Michael Bourn, Brian McCann and Dan Uggla — to cope with a dominant left-handed fastballer.
Who was that lefty-eating hurler? Ross Detwiler, the Nats’ fifth starter.
The Braves averted the unmitigated disaster of a sweep that would have put them eight games behind the Nats in the National League East, thanks to a 5-1 win behind exceptional right-hander Kris Medlen.
The 26-year-old Brave who had Tommy John elbow surgery two Augusts ago, just like Stephen Strasburg, and returned to the majors last September, just like Strasburg, has helped the Braves win his last 16 starts since May 2010. Yes, 16-0.
However, Medlen ranks high enough in their future that they have used him sparingly or out of the bullpen this season and, even now, won’t push him more than 130 innings in this regular season. Won’t that hinder their chances for a division title against the Nats? Absolutely. But the Braves define the smart, long-view organization. Since his name is not Strasburg, there is no macho-vs.-medicine debate about Medlen.
Even though a crowd of 29,111 ignored rain that delayed the start and begged all night for a sweep, the Nats still find themselves six games ahead of the Braves, two more than they were just four days ago. With 21 of their last 38 games at home and 25 of them against teams that are at least eight games under .500, the Nats should control their own fate.
A year ago, who even imagined they’d have a destiny to defend this season? If you don’t smack your forehead frequently at this total reversal of baseball reality, a lifetime worldview of the game that has been stood on its head, then pile-driven into the ground, then please pay better attention.
The Nats have a wide range of reactions to the whiplash change in their universe. “We don’t realize it,” reliever Drew Storen said. “When we are done, we can look back. Once you step outside the box and start looking in, that’s when the trouble starts.”
When this long ultra-hot spell cools, as they all do, that view will be needed even more.
Michael Morse goes Storen one better. He can’t even remember the Phils-invasion series last August or the treatment his team received.
“We got booed?” he said. “I need to pay more attention.”
Later, asked if he was satisfied with taking two of three from the Braves, he said, “Of course. Six-game lead. It’s awesome.”
Ryan Zimmerman, resident keeper of institutional memory, has enjoyed every second of these 366 days which have condensed two or three years of expected improvement into one year of instant local lore.
“Things have changed a little bit,” he said, chuckling. “Sometimes you have to have some rough times to get to the best times. Some people avoid the bad times or never get to the good ones at all. But it’s sweeter, even better, for those of us who went through it.
“If we take care of business [in the regular season], we have a chance to do something special. Once you get there, anything can happen, as we saw last year. Get hot at the right time and roll with it. All our injuries have kind of helped us, actually. Half of us haven’t even played three-quarters of a season. ”
Note that Zimmerman avoided all of the locker room jinx words, including “playoffs,” “division title,” and “possible home-field advantage through the World Series.”
This week’s series win over the Braves brought the Nats’ head-to-head edge over the Braves to 10-5, continuing a multi-year trend. If the Braves end up a wild card, then win the one-game play-in, the would play the Nats in an NL Division Series if Washington continues to have the NL’s best record.
“There’s 10 times more pressure to win your division now and those guys know it,” Johnson said. “If you get the wild card, it really puts you behind the eight ball because you probably have to use your best pitcher in that one-game playoff.
“That’s why this series is more weighted. There’s more energy level, more concentration — there’s more on the table. Atlanta was very dejected after [Monday]. After [Tuesday], they’re very dejected. They’ve got a pretty good lead on the wild card. But they don’t want the wild card. It’s not a comfortable feeling. Same way with San Francisco and [the Dodgers]. There’s heat on them” in the NL West.”
After Wednesday’s win, the Braves fly to San Francisco for four tough games without that sense of dejection. But they don’t leave town happy. The Giants are one of the teams chasing them.
With a six-game lead and six weeks to play, the Nats have an excellent chance, though far from an easy one, to grab the prize that is now an even more enviable passport into the postseason than it was before: the crown of the NL East. Just a year and a day ago, those words seemed seasons, not mere weeks away.
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.
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Photos: Scenes from Nats-Braves series