If there were ever a day that was set up to test the Nationals’ mental resolve, it was Saturday. They have had others this season that have surpassed it for sheer uniqueness - flying to Chicago after manager Jim Riggleman abruptly resigned in June comes to mind - but there might not be anything like good, old-fashioned trade deadline stress to put a player’s head in a vice grip.
They may say they’re blocking out the trade rumors, or that they’re focused on what’s happening on the field, but as most players will ultimately concede, hearing themselves as the subject of trade talk affects them. There are travel arrangements to be made, apartment leases to consider, and a basic question underneath all of that: Where am I going to be tomorrow?
This time of year is unmatched in its ability to put specific uncertainties in a ballplayer’s head, and most of the principles involved in the Nationals’ 3-0 win over the Mets were dealing with them this week.
Yunesky Maya got to Washington at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday and was told to come from Triple-A Syracuse’s trip to Toledo in case probable starter Jason Marquis was traded. Maya sat sequestered in the Nationals’ family room across the hall from the clubhouse until 5:58 p.m., when he finally got word that the trade sending Marquis to the Diamondbacks was complete and he could enter the clubhouse to get ready for his start.
Drew Storen has heard his name tossed around in rumors all week as the Nationals try to land a center fielder. The No. 10 pick in the 2009 draft, the 23-year-old closer looks like a big part of the Nationals’ future - until you consider his ability to bring back a center fielder and/or leadoff hitter, which is probably an even bigger key for the team than a shutdown reliever. He’s only been with the team for a year and a half, but to him, it’s felt like a longer stretch; he rooted for the Expos as a kid after meeting Chad Cordero as a ballboy, and signed the day after he was drafted so he could get his career started. He had a conversation with manager Davey Johnson again on Saturday where Johnson tried to reassure him he wasn’t going anywhere; Storen hopes the manager is right.
“Emotionally, I feel like I’ve invested a lot into this,” Storen said. “I want to help turn this team around. That’s kind of what I reiterated to Davey. But at the same time, I understand (general manager) Mike (Rizzo) has a job to do himself.”
And then there was Jayson Werth, whose arrival in Washington last December was a $126 million signal that the team was ready to try and make a push up the standings. He came to the park on Saturday, when he’d be honored with his first bobblehead doll, hitting .219.
But for all the chaos that preceded it, the Nationals’ win over the Mets was remarkably normal. That was mostly because of the performances of Maya, Storen and Werth.
The Cuban right-hander got his first major league win, pitching 5 1/3 shutout innings - though he strained his oblique muscle trying to avoid a tag in the bottom of the fifth and could land on the disabled list. But he had a good sinker, and was able to cruise through the first few innings with surprising ease.
Werth launched a three-run homer up the grassy bank in center field, giving the Nationals all the runs they’d need, and followed it with a single in his next at-bat. By the time he was intentionally walked in the sixth inning, the boos usually reserved for Werth were being directed at Mets starter R.A. Dickey.
And in the ninth inning, Storen took the mound with a lead for the first time since July 18. He loaded the bases with two hits and a walk, but froze former teammate Willie Harris with a slider to end the game.
it was a solid win for a team that prides itself on mental toughness, and for the first time since the All-Star break, music thumped in the home clubhouse at Nationals Park.
“Jason gets traded an hour or two before his start, and Maya showed up, I think, an hour and two minutes before his start,” Werth said. “He went out there, and under the circumstances, pitched great. He got the win. We needed it. We’ve been reeling a little bit. It’s a step in the right direction. We need to get going. I think this team has the ability to reel off a bunch of games in a row. It’s kind of a rhythm team, and when we’re in rhythm, I think we’re really tough to beat. When we’re kind of out of sync and not playing the best baseball, I think we can go the other way a little bit. Hopefully it’s a step in the right direction, and we can build on this.”