The brand-new Washington Nationals, attracting 35,000 fans a per game in D.C., visit Atlanta tied for first place with the Braves, who have ruled the National League East since 1991. The team that wins the three-game series will own first place.
In Game 1, after eight innings, the Nationals lead 2-1. Ace and All-Star Livan Hernandez is masterful, baffling the Braves with his pinpoint control. However, to quell the Braves’ strong lineup, he has thrown more than 100 pitches.
Manager Frank Robinson decides to lift Hernandez for his All-Star closer, 22-year old Chad Cordero. Tellingly, Robinson has replaced a veteran with World Series experience for a youngster in his sophomore season.
The Braves have scouted Cordero well. With one out in the bottom of the ninth, Adam LaRoche ties the game on a sacrifice fly. Cordero bravely escapes further damage, but the Braves eventually win 3-2 in 10 innings. The shaken Nationals lose all three games by one run and never see first place again.
Fast-forward seven years to Friday’s excruciating loss to the Braves. Many longtime Nationals fans probably experienced a nauseating case of deja vu. Would this awful defeat cause Washington’s young team to collapse again? Another loss, in the first game a Saturday doubleheader, portended disaster.
Then, somehow, the Nationals recovered. In Game 2, John Lannan’s first major league game of 2012 was also the Nationals’ most important game. Lannan’s fine seven innings, coupled with some timely hitting, aggressive baserunning and a few mistakes by the Braves, gave Washington a 5-2 win. The victory guaranteed the series would end with the Nationals still in first.
On Sunday, behind Ryan Zimmerman’s two home runs and Ross Detwiler’s dominant pitching, the Nationals crushed the Braves 9-2. The win earned an improbable series split. Unlike 2005, Washington emerged, not in second place, but where they started, 3 1/2 games in front.
What made 2012 different from 2005?
* Talent: The 2012 Nationals are young, but rich in skill. When fully healthy, they may be even better. By contrast, the 2005 team, with minimal talent, rode the thrill of their new surroundings and a knack for winning one-run games to vault to first place. Once the dog days arrived, their performance was unsustainable.
* Depth: The current Washington nine has tapped a rich vein of prospects and some smart offseason signings to build a deep team able to withstand multiple injuries. (It remains to be seen if the Nationals can recover from Ian Desmond’s oblique tear.) The 2005 team failed to overcome fewer injuries, the most serious to first baseman Nick Johnson, who was having a wonderful season.
* Ownership: The Lerner family is a stable, wealthy group. They have invested in the farm system, allowed general manager Mike Rizzo to build an excellent scouting network, signed key players like Gio Gonzalez and Zimmerman to long-term contracts, and inked a few key free agents, Jayson Werth being the biggest. Since Major League Baseball owned the 2005 club, no such support existed. Budget considerations constrained who the team could deal for at the trading deadline. In September, MLB refused to let the Nationals call up more than a handful of additional players, while other teams expanded their rosters without restrictions.
* Davey Johnson: Robinson was one of baseball’s greatest players, full of grace and class. However, when his 2005 club started to crack under the pressure of the pennant race, Robinson cracked, too. His most infamous quote after a tough loss, “Ask (the players) if their (behinds) are getting tight.”
Johnson, on the other hand, blamed himself for Friday’s infamous meltdown. In doing so, he both took the blame off of his players’ shoulders and expressed his faith and confidence in them. The Nationals’ manager has a sixth sense for how to best handle pressure, elation, and disappointment.
The Braves gave the Nationals a stern test this weekend. The resilient Washington nine staggered, but ultimately tapped its own intestinal fortitude and their manager’s leadership acumen to fight their worthy challengers to a draw.
How important this series becomes is part of the 162-game roller-coaster ride Nats fans are still enjoying, with many more twists and turns to go.
Stephen Walker blogs about the Nationals at District on Deck and is the author of “A Whole New Ballgame: The 1969 Washington Senators” (Pocol Press, 2009). His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.