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STEVE DESHAZO: A close loss to league’s best may be Nats’ gain
WASHINGTON—If the Washington Nationals were applying for the same corporate job as the New York Yankees, they might as well not even compile a résumé.
The Yankees have 27 World Series trophies; the Nationals (née Expos) have made two playoff appearances (not including the 1994 season, when they had baseball’s best record before a season-ending lockout) and haven’t enjoyed a winning season since 2003.
But as Saturday’s draining and excruciating 14-inning, 5–3 loss proved, the gap between the Nationals and their distinguished guests isn’t nearly as great as you might imagine. It can be measured in the standings (half a game in their overall records) and in inches (a questionable out call at the plate).
“I can see why that team is in first place,” said New York first baseman Mark Teixeira, who negotiated with the Nationals three years ago and broke their hearts with a 14th-inning two-run double Saturday. “[Jordan] Zimmermann is impressive, and every reliever they brought in was as dirty as the next. There were not a lot of hits to be gotten.”
“Dirty” is a compliment, in case you were wondering. And it’s no secret that the Nationals, owners of baseball’s best team ERA (3.01), can pitch with anyone.
But quantum leaps like the worst-to-first journeys of the 1991 Twins and Braves don’t happen often. The Nationals—who scurried off to attend a black-tie fundraiser Saturday night—are trying to crash baseball’s party.
Painful lessons like Saturday’s are a necessary part of the process. And there’s no better (or less forgiving) measuring stick than the pinstripes.
“These are experiences you grow from,” said Davey Johnson, Washington’s wizened 69-year-old manager. “This is a heck of a ballclub we’re playing, and we had our opportunities to win. That’s the way you learn. It’s just part of it.”
No one should be taking more meticulous notes than Bryce Harper. The Nationals’ 19-year-old phenom has been turning heads and winning believers in his six weeks in the big leagues, spawning premature talk of making him an all-star.
Not if voters saw Saturday’s game. Wily 40-year-old Andy Pettitte threw Harper two fastballs in his first at-bat—and the teen didn’t see another heater for the rest of his miserable 0-for-7, five-strikeout day.
“I knew he was a really aggressive hitter,” Pettitte said, “but I felt like I had a pretty good cutter going, so I tried to expand the strike zone.”
Harper didn’t feel like talking after taking the platinum sombrero, but others in the Washington clubhouse did.
“I thought he probably was really amped up,” Johnson said of Harper, “and he came in there against Pettitte—I’ve never seen him swing at balls outside of the zone. He was chasing balls.
“He got in that mode of trying to make something happen. That’s part of the youth. Some other guys would get runners in scoring position and we’re swinging at balls not anywhere close to the strike zone. That’s growing. That’s inexperience. Other guy’s in a jam–we don’t have to help him out. But we’ll get better at it.”
Added shortstop Ian Desmond: “I would rather strike out five times in the big leagues as a 19-year-old than not be in the big leagues at all. But I would definitely put my money on him to bounce back. I don’t think that it’s going to keep him down for too long. I’m sure he’ll come in tomorrow, shake it off and be back to the same energetic kid that we’ve all seen.”
That’s good advice for Harper—and the Nationals as a whole. If the home plate umpire hadn’t incorrectly called Tyler Moore out at home in the eighth inning—replays showed he slid under catcher Russell Martin’s tag—Washington would be going for a series win Sunday on a weekend when Stephen Strasburg didn’t pitch.
The Nationals can sense this isn’t just another series, even in June. It’s a litmus test. As difficult as Saturday’s loss is to digest, the silver lining is there’s another game to play Sunday—and nearly 100 more after that. And as long as the Nationals take their usual approach (and not the one Harper adopted Saturday), they’ll have a chance to win any of them.
Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443