The reaction among everyone in the Nationals dugout Monday night when Wilson Ramos crumpled to the ground and motioned for a trainer suggested an immediate recognition of the severity of what had just happened.
Confirmation, though, came this afternoon when an MRI of Ramos' right knee indeed revealed a torn ACL, a crushing blow for the All-Star catcher, who suddenly will enter free agency coming off the second reconstructive surgery of his career, and for the Nationals, who suddenly have to account for his lost production in the postseason.
"This close to playoffs, yeah, his option year ... there's never an opportune time. This was the most inopportune time for this to happen," manager Dusty Baker said. "His faith will carry him through. I talked to him last night after the game and I talked to him today. And after talking to him, you wouldn't know that this was a negative event."
Ramos, who will have surgery sometime in the next week once swelling goes down, wasn't available in the Nationals clubhouse while reporters were in the room before tonight's game against the Diamondbacks. Teammates expressed both sympathy for the 29-year-old catcher and resolve to pick up the slack in his absence.
"To have a career year like this and be such a huge part of this team and have this happen for the second time, it's heartbreaking for him and for the team," shortstop Danny Espinosa said. "But we're very, very fortunate that we have a starting catcher in Jose Lobaton."
Lobaton, the career backup who does have postseason success with the Rays in 2013, is behind the plate tonight to catch Max Scherzer. Baker, though, suggested rookie Pedro Severino will also get some playing time, especially against left-handers because Lobaton is still dealing with a lingering right elbow ailment that makes it tougher for the switch-hitter to bat right-handed.
"It's not what I want, but it's the opportunity I have to take," Lobaton said. "There's a lot of responsibility for me to do my best and to help the team win the World Series. That's all we want."
Ramos was enjoying by far the best season of his career, hitting .307 with 22 homers, 80 RBIs and an .850 OPS that ranks second only to the Rangers' Jonathan Lucroy among all major league catchers. This was a major breakthrough for the Venezuelan native, who missed significant time due to injuries in 2012 (his previous ACL tear), 2013 (broken hamate bone in his wrist) and 2014 (multiple hamstring strains) and then struggled at the plate despite staying healthy in 2015.
All of this put Ramos in prime position to earn a big payday this winter, his first ever as a free agent. He and the Nationals have had some preliminary contract talks this summer, but those talks didn't progress far.
Then came the fateful play in the top of the sixth Monday night, when Ramos had to leap to catch a high relay throw from first baseman Ryan Zimmerman as Arizona's Brandon Drury slid across the plate. The weight of Ramos' body came down on his right leg, and he fell to the ground, then rolled over in pain as he signaled toward the dugout. He could barely walk back to the clubhouse with the aid of a trainer on each side.
"I feel terrible for him," Zimmerman said. "Obviously he's a big part of our team, the year he was having, he's obviously not going to be able to finish that year like he wanted to. But I feel worse for him than I do for us."
Recognizing that Lobaton and Severino don't provide the kind of offensive punch that Ramos does, the Nationals will need to rely on other regulars to produce at the plate once they open their National League Division Series against the Dodgers on Oct. 7.
"All of our catchers are very good catchers," Baker said. "It's just that he is not only the top offensive catcher on our team, a big part of our offense, he's one of the top offensive catchers in baseball. We'll really miss his offense. I think Loby and Severino can replace (him) on defense, but it's up to some of the other guys to offset his loss on the offensive side of the ball."
To that end, Baker stayed at Nationals Park late after Monday night's game, scribbling out potential lineups. He suggested he's still searching for the right combination.
"That's what I thought about half the night last night," the manager said. "That's what I thought about, like right after the game, when I was making different lineup scenarios with (hitting coach) Rick Schu, and (bench coach) Chris Speier came in to say goodnight and I was making different scenarios. That's what I do. It just so happened that he asked me what were those 15 sheets of rolled up paper in the trash can."