Every athlete has one. Ryan Zimmerman won’t tell you what his is. Michael Jordan famously got his first one from being cut from his high school basketball team, and found new ones through slights - real or perceived - throughout his career.
Every athlete needs one - a chip on their shoulder, a motivating force, whatever. Semantics don’t matter. It’s why teams post newspaper clippings on bulletin boards and coaches speak in boring platitudes. Because at this level, the elite stratum where the difference between winner and loser is imperceptibly then, there is nothing scarier than an athlete who’s found his edge.
Willie Harris, growing up in Cairo, Ga., got his when the Atlanta Braves, the team he loved growing up, decided he wasn’t worth offering a contract after the 2007 season. And Scott Olsen has gone through the first stages of his career always angry at someone or something, but never sure what to do with it until this year, when the Nationals - who non-tendered him last December and brought him back at less than half his 2009 salary - decided at the end of spring training to send him to the minors.
Thursday’s game against the Braves, then, was the confluence of two athletes raging on the fuel of motivation; Harris trying to prove something to his former team, Olsen on a season-long quest to remind the Nationals they erred by hedging against his surgically-repaired shoulder instead of believing in him at the end of spring.
When the two collided, the results were riveting. Olsen took a no-hitter into the eighth inning, coming five outs away from the first one in Nationals history. And after the Braves took the no-hitter - not to mention a 20-inning scoreless streak and a chance at the win - away in the eighth inning, Harris flicked a pinch-hit single up the middle in the ninth inning to give the Nationals a 3-2 walk-off win.
It moved Washington back to two games above .500 and gave them their fourth win in their last six series. Of all the Nationals’ recent victories, though, this was the most soulful - a brush with history, followed by a slipup befitting the 59-win teams of the last two years and the kind of resilient win this team simply hasn’t had the nerve to get before.
The two players most responsible for it were the two for whom motivation was the most potent.
“I talked to Olsen about this. I told him, ‘Man, something’s different about you,’” Harris said. “What I think it is, is sometimes when your back’s against the wall and sometimes someone may think you’re not capable of doing something, what you do is say, ‘OK, I’m going to show you.’ Your character gets tested, and he’s been coming through lately, and I think he’s going to continue.”
The mechanics of what Olsen has done well in his last three starts are nothing revelatory. He’s pounded the strike zone repeatedly, working with a fastball that’s gained velocity and life as his left shoulder gets stronger and generating outs off a swooping slider. But the real reason for his success lay much deeper.
Olsen, who came to Washington with Josh Willingham in a Nov. 2008 trade, served up weak fastballs and placid breaking balls through 11 starts in 2009, fighting shoulder problems to the tune of a 6.03 ERA before surgery ended his season in July. Rather than pay him a minimum of $2.24 million in 2010, the Nationals non-tendered Olsen in December, then resigned him for $1 million a day later.
Manager Jim Riggleman said all spring that if Olsen was healthy, he’d be in the rotation. But his shoulder was slow to recover this spring, and as his fastball stayed dangerously close to his changeup, Garrett Mock took enough of a lead on Olsen that the Nationals picked the right-hander for the final spot in the rotation, not believing Olsen was healthy enough to be trusted, at least at the start of the year.
The Nationals kept him in the system, rather than cutting him and saving some money. But the decision to send Olsen to the minors left him angry and hurt. As he packed up his things at Nationals Park after being cut on the last day of the exhibition season, Olsen had nothing to say about the decision, other than, “Call my agent.”
But after Mock faltered, Olsen was back in the majors a week into the season. Thursday night, as he has in all but one start this season, Olsen pitched like a man with something to prove.
He peppered the strike zone with a lively low-90s fastball all night, only allowing two balls hit out of the infield in the first seven innings. He needed a couple tremendous plays from shortstop Ian Desmond (a running catch on a blooper and a deep-in-the-hole throw to get Martin Prado in the sixth) to extend the no-hitter, but nothing out of the ordinary otherwise.
“You don’t think you’re going to get the no-hitter, but you’re thinking about it,” Olsen said. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about it. I thought about it in the fourth and fifth inning. It’s one of those things that’s real hard to do.”
The Nationals got just enough of a lead on Tim Hudson, the Braves right-hander who’d killed them over the years, on homers by Ivan Rodriguez and Adam Dunn. And then they honored baseball’s superstitions, slowly ostracizing their starter and silently wondering if they’d be part of history.
Asked how much he was thinking about it, Rodriguez (who caught Kenny Rogers’ perfect game in 1994 and Justin Verlander’s 2007 no-hitter), simply said: “What do you think?
“He’s six outs away (in the eighth). You’re thinking about it. For all of us in this clubhouse, he won,” Rodriguez said.
Not technically, he didn’t. Olsen gave up a hard-hit single to catcher David Ross with one out in the eighth inning, and Zimmerman’s machine-gun throw to second sailed over Alberto Gonzalez’s head, costing the Nationals a chance at a double play on Melky Cabrera.
Then Olsen allowed a single to Nate McLouth before coming out of the game to a lengthy ovation from the crowd of 17,131. He watched on the top step of the dugout, feeling “helpless” as pinch-hitter Jason Heyward dropped a two-run single into left field, costing Olsen his shutout streak and win, all at once.
But the Nationals loaded the bases in the ninth, with Zimmerman banging a double off the right-field wall against Peter Moylan, the submariner who surrendered his walk-off homer on Opening Night in 2008. An intentional walk to Cristian Guzman loaded the bases, and up walked Harris, who’d been playing a game with Wil Nieves in the batting cage and hoping he got a chance to stick it to his former team.
“I don’t know what other guys think, because I’ve been non-tendered before,” Harris said, his lower lip twisting a little as a sneer crossed his face. “I know the feeling. The feeling is, ‘You know what? I’m going to come back and I’m going to show these guys.’ I was non-tendered by the Braves. It irks you, in the pit of your stomach. But what it does is, it gives you a boost, if you know how to handle it. You take it and use it. It’s just adversity being tossed your way. That’s all it is.”
His 1-0 grounder got through the hole between first and second, with Adam Kennedy crossing home as the Nationals celebrated the victory welded together by Olsen and Harris’ fire.
“All of us want to be the best that we can be,” Zimmerman said. “Each individual person has to find what it is that makes them have an edge or have that mentality. I can’t tell you what it is for Max (Justin Maxwell) or Adam (Dunn) or whoever. But all the great ones have it. It’s something I think this team, as a whole, has more this year than they ever have.”