For the Nationals, 2010 was a year of changes; they began spring training in the most settled, tranquil fashion they had in several years, after the unrest of 2009's Smiley Gonzalez debacle. That soon gave way, though, to the Stephen Strasburg World Tour, which blazed through Florida towns and minor league ballparks in the Northeast before reaching its apex in one transcendent performance on June 8 at Nationals Park. Just as quickly as Strasburg arrived, though, he was gone, and by the end of the year, the Nationals were setting a new direction for 2011 not only without him, but with a new leadership structure in place after team president Stan Kasten resigned.
To sum it up, we've put together a look at the 10 days that defined the Nationals' year in 2010. So, without further ado, here's the list:
Jan. 29: Dunn extension talks begin
The possibility of first baseman Adam Dunn staying in Washington appeared so bright on this winter day, when he arrived in town for the team's annual NatsFest. He began the day by meeting with general manager Mike Rizzo - where both sides expressed their interest in a contract extension - and when a fan asked the Nationals' front office about it at a season-ticketholder luncheon, Dunn stood up, began leading his own round of applause and stared down principal owner Mark Lerner with comic deadpan. But the extension never happened; philosophies differed in the front office about how much Dunn was worth, and after the team kept him at the trade deadline, he left in free agency for the White Sox. Now, the Nationals have to find another slugger to take his place.
April 5: Opening Day over-Phil
If 2010 was going to be any different than 2009 or 2008 for the Nationals, the events of Opening Day wouldn't have suggested it. The team began the season at Nationals Park against the two-time National League champion Phillies, whose fans had organized into groups and snapped up thousands of tickets for Opening Day. They booed everyone in the Nationals' organization, from clubhouse managers to cleanup hitters, and reveled as their team roughed up John Lannan in an 11-1 win. And, to top it all off, President Barack Obama threw out the first pitch -- donning a White Sox hat to go with his Nationals jacket just before he lobbed a pitch toward Ryan Zimmerman. The day sent the Nationals' fanbase into confusion and anger, and made it look like 2010 would be more of the same.
May 13: In the rain, a high-water mark
The events of Opening Day soon gave way to something else; a plucky, overachieving team that, for the season's first six weeks, looked like it might be capable of a few surprises. The Nationals thumped the Colorado Rockies 14-6 that night, in a game shortened to eight innings because of a deluge at Coors Field, and improved their record to 20-15. It was the highest they'd been over .500 since the 2005 season, but it wasn't meant to last.
June 8: Strasmas
On the morning of June 8, the Nationals were in a tailspin; they'd dropped seven of 10 on a long road trip and lost two of three against the Cincinnati Reds, completing a 7-16 stretch that dropped them to 27-31 for the year. But none of it mattered. This night was all about Stephen Strasburg, who'd arrived at Nationals Park after a scant (or, depending on your view, unnecessary) two months of minor league ball. ESPN ran a countdown to the game. John Smoltz and Orel Hershiser were on hand to opine on the game's next pitching great. And, before a sold-out crowd and suffocating hype, Strasburg soared above all of it. He struck out 14 batters, including the last seven he faced, in a 5-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Nationals' big three hitters -- Josh Willingham, Adam Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman -- all homered, and Matt Capps got the save as Nationals Park shook like it hadn't before under picturesque June skies. It was, by all accounts, a perfect night for the Nationals, and the events of that game reverberated around the baseball world for days.
August 16: Harper signs up
As the clock steamed toward midnight on August 16, the Nationals had already had a pretty good night. They'd signed three pitchers for over-slot bonuses - second-round pick Sammy Solis, fourth-rounder A.J. Cole and 12th-rounder Robbie Ray - but nobody was going to call that night a success unless Washington got its big prize. That would be No. 1 overall pick Bryce Harper, the precocious 17-year-old who'd gone to junior college a year early, graced Sports Illlustrated covers caked in eyeblack and hit 500-foot homers before he could drive. Just as they had the year before, the Nationals went down to the final seconds of negotiating time with Harper's (and Strasburg's) adviser, Scott Boras -- though the basics of Harper's contract had been agreed upon hours before. They got the deal done, and in a press gathering in the Nationals' conference room, team president Stan Kasten walloped general manager Mike Rizzo with a whipped-cream pie in celebration.
August 21: Strasburg goes down
There was no way Stephen Strasburg's first start at Citizens Bank Park, against the Phillies, wasn't going to be an event. The combination of the fireballing rookie against the Phillies' potent lineup, before one of the game's most rabid fanbases, was bound to be electric. Phillies slugger Ryan Howard rushed back from a rehab assignment just to face Strasburg. Instead of heckling him in his bullpen session before the game, fans simply stood and snapped pictures, almost in awe of the 22-year-old who, at this point, was putting together a dominating rookie season. And for four innings, this looked like one of Strasburg's most sublime outings. He threw 100-mph heat, got the Phillies flailing at his dive-bomb curveball, and kept their left-handers off-balance with his 90-mph changeup. But it was that pitch -- specifically, a fifth-inning offering to Domonic Brown - that would be Strasburg's last of the year. He walked off the mound, shook his arm a few times and motioned for the team's trainers. Within two weeks, Strasburg was under the operating knife for Tommy John surgery. The Nationals won't have him back until next September at the earliest, and even then, they don't know if he'll be the same.
Sept. 1: Nyjer Morgan brawls in Florida
If 2009 was the year the Nationals learned they had a possible sparkplug in leadoff hitter Nyjer Morgan, 2010 was the year they learned just how combustible he can be. He struggled at the start of the year, allowed an inside-the-park homer in May after he slammed his glove following a missed catch and lost his ironclad grip on the leadoff spot. But the events of Sept. 1, which came at the end of a bizarre two-week stretch, defined the outfielder's year. Already facing a suspension for throwing a ball into the stands the day Strasburg got hurt, and having drawn the ire of two teams for home-plate collisions, Morgan stole two bases after the Florida Marlins plunked him in retaliation for one of those collisions. Then, after the Marlins' Chris Volstad threw behind him, Morgan charged the mound, touching off a bench-clearing brawl that finished with the managers from both teams nose-to-nose, trading taunts. Morgan was suspended for eight games after the brawl, and Nationals third-base coach Pat Listach also got suspended for his role in the fight.
Sept. 23: Kasten steps down
At various points during his tenure, there had been rumblings that Nationals president Stan Kasten was not long for the District. His name was connected to different jobs, or his happiness with his level of influence in the Nationals organization was questioned. But Kasten's actual departure was much more deliberate than that. He had told the Lerner family he would stay for five years, and told team officials at the end of Year 4 he wouldn't be continuing after he finished his commitment. So, on Sept. 23, Kasten made his decision public, announcing his resignation as Nationals president. He is still a minority owner, but his days as a ubiquitous figure in the team's front office - trading barbs with reporters, talking budgets with owners and taking Rizzo under his wing - are over. Where he's headed next is unclear -- maybe to the commissioner's office, maybe to another team, maybe back to the NBA - but Kasten offered few regrets about his five years with the Nationals. "I think we are poised to really take off," he said. "I think we have ownership that is ready to take the next step. We talk a lot about it privately, and I have a high level of confidence that's going to happen."
Oct. 19: Rizzo takes the reins
In the wake of Kasten's departure, the Nationals needed to decide how they would structure their organization going forward. They had little doubt about how they would put the baseball department together, though, and on this day, they put full responsibility for it on Mike Rizzo's shoulders. The Nationals announced a five-year contract extension for the GM, also making him the senior vice president of baseball operations. Going forward, Rizzo will have a direct line to the team's ownership, and even greater autonomy over the baseball operation than he had before. How the Nationals fare under his leadership remains to be seen, but from now on, all the credit -- or blame -- goes to him.
Dec. 5: Werth signing begins "Phase Two"
Executives and reporters were still trickling in to the Dolphin Hotel at Walt Disney World, a day before baseball's Winter Meetings started, when the Nationals dropped the biggest bomb of the week. They announced they'd signed Phillies outfielder Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million contract, kicking off what Rizzo called "Phase Two" of their development and signaling that the team was ready to spend on free agents. Baseball people grumbled about the contract, saying it was too much money for a 31-year-old outfielder on a team that needed more than Werth to contend. And while Rizzo acknowledged the Nationals had to pay a premium, he stood defiantly behind the deal he gave the outfielder. "I've had some feedback from some people who read certain things," he said. "But there's no negative reaction from me. I'm satisfied with the deal. I'm glad we got Jayson Werth. I can understand some of the comments, but we're taking care of ourselves. We're trying to build something special here, and we thought this player exemplified what we're trying to do. I don't apologize for Jayson Werth. We're a better ballclub today than we were yesterday without him."
So there's the full list, recapping what's been an eventful year for the Nationals. It's been an eventful year for me, too; a year ago today, I was signing papers to finalize my layoff from the Washington Times, which had -- foolishly, it now appears -- decided to ax its sports section. But the opportunity that's been given to me here has allowed me to try some new things and interact with all of you at a more personal level than ever before. 2011 is going to be a big year around here, and we'll get it started soon after the new year with another meet-up to discuss the Nationals. In the meantime, though, please accept my warmest wishes for a safe and happy new year, and my gratitude for reading all year. Talk to you soon.