On the afternoon of July 21, Nats fans gathered and sulked in mass. The night before, the Nationals had blown a nine-run lead with their best pitcher on the mound. Nats fans watched helplessly as pitcher after pitcher was terrorized by Braves hitters and what felt like a safe and comfy cushion disappeared. It all went away when Michael Bourn tripled to bring in the go-ahead run in the top of the ninth. Danny Espinosa would tie it with a homer in the bottom of the ninth, but in the end, the Braves turned what was a 9-0 deficit entering the sixth inning into an 11-10 victory.
Baseball fans depend on the next day's game to help to recover from a demoralizing loss, but what happened on the afternoon of July 21 did anything but. A day after blowing a nine-run lead, Nats fans had to watch Ben Sheets, in just his second start since 2010, shut out the Nationals. The Braves, in the course of two games, had shrunk the Nationals' division lead down to 1 1/2 games and the next pitcher due up on the evening of July 21 was John Lannan.
The very same Lannan who months earlier wasn't good enough for the Nats rotation and now, because of a doubleheader, was being called up to protect the Nats' lead in the National League East - and possibly save their season. Having everything come down to Lannan was fitting and depressing at the time, and then the game happened. Lannan allowed two early runs, but settled down and pitched seven strong innings.
The next day the man who beat Lannan out for a rotation spot, Ross Detwiler, took the mound and, in an effort to show he belonged, mimicked Lannan's seven innings of two-run ball and the Nats were able to earn a split in their series with the Braves. The division lead stayed at 3 1/2 games, the number it had been coming into the series, and Washington went 7-3 over its next 10 games. After that series with the Braves, the Nats closed out the season with a 42-24 record, won the NL East and finished with the best record in baseball.
The point of this is that as the Nats stare down an elimination game against the St. Louis Cardinals they have been here before. On the afternoon of July 21, the Nats' season was on the brink. If the Braves had swept that series, they would have left town with a half-game lead in the division. The Nats fought back, won those next two games and went on to close out their most magical season in history. Teams don't win 98 games by accident. The Nationals are good, and the pitcher taking the mound today is one of the reasons they are.
For most of his career, Detwiler has battled injuries and inconsistency. He has twice changed his throwing motion and struggled with figuring out who he was as a pitcher. Through his two-seam fastball, Detwiler has found himself on the mound. If he throws that with convection and doesn't try and get too fancy out there, he has success. Detwiler is prone to panicking and starting to overthrow when adversity heads his way, but he is as capable as any of the Nats' starters.
The national media will be quick to point out that Detwiler isn't Stephen Strasburg and if the Nationals are eliminated today, they will take glee in pointing out the failure of the Strasburg shutdown they've written about for months. It is fill-in-the-blank at this point. The Nationals, as a team, have been here before and on a warm July 21 afternoon, an unlikely hero stepped up when Lannan led the Nationals to a series- and possible season-saving victory over the Braves. It is now Detwiler's turn to try and save the Nats' season.
David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals for Citizens of Natstown, and offers his viewpoints as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. 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.