Marty Niland: Ramos deserves a hearty “horns up” from Nats fans this week

When Nationals Park is filled with hometown fans, there’s no love lost crowd for opposing players, especially on a division rival like Philadelphia. However, when the Phillies play in Washington this week, even the most diehard Nationals partisans should give a hearty cheer and a “horns up” for the newest Phillie, catcher Wilson Ramos.

Nats fans remember watching Ramos mature from a promising rookie into the game’s top-hitting catcher from 2011-2016 as he helped the team blossom from an National League East cellar dweller into a perennial contender with multiple division championships.

Ramos was behind the plate for Jordan Zimmermann’s no-hitter to close the 2014 season, both Max Scherzer no-nos in 2015 and Scherzer’s 20-strikeout gem on May 11, 2016. He was twice among the NL’s top five in caught-stealing percentage and owns a Silver Slugger.

Ramos came to Washington from Minnesota at the 2010 trade deadline for closer Matt Capps. He spent that season learning the finer points of the game from his childhood idol and future Hall of Famer Iván Rodríguez, then caught almost all of the team’s games that September as Washington closed out its third straight last-place season at 72-90.

Ramos had emerged as the starter in 2011, and was a key cog in the Nats offense, slashing .358/.426.547 in April with two homers and four doubles as the team came out of the gate playing close to .500 ball. On June 21, he hit a three-run, walk-off homer to cap a five-run, ninth-inning rally as the Nats beat Seattle 6-5 and pulled within a game of .500.

Ramos and the Nats were up and down the rest of the summer after Davey Johnson took over as manager in midseason, but both heated up in September, when Ramos’ mother and sister visited the United States for the first time to watch him play. While the Nats were finishing 17-10 to complete an 80-81 season, Ramos was hitting .358/.434/.582 with three homers and 12 RBIs. He finished the season at .267/.334./.445 with 15 homers and 54 RBIs, placing fourth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting.

Ramos has told the story that shortstop Ian Desmond gave him his “Buffalo” nickname that season. In a game where he was being hit and bruised by a lot of foul tips, Ramos always got back down behind the plate and did his job. “You’re a buffalo,” Desmond told him. The name stuck, and Ramos would celebrate big with his trademark “horns-up,” bumping his firsts against the front of his batting helmet.

Ramos had emerged as a star on an up-and-coming team and planned to fine tune his skills playing winter ball in his native Venezuela, when the then 24-year-old endured the most harrowing experience of his life: being kidnapped at gunpoint outside his family’s home.

While his family prayed and fans in Washington held a candlelight vigil, Ramos was held for more than two days in a remote mountain cabin. He told investigators his captors hoped to demand a large ransom. Luckily, Venezuelan law enforcement had the kidnappers under surveillance and found them, freeing Ramos in an exchange of gunfire.

Even after the ordeal, Ramos was off to a consistent start to in 2012 when he suffered a season-ending knee injury just 25 games in. He split catching duties with Kurt Suzuki in 2013, but hamstring injuries hampered him for the first half of the season. He came back strong in July, hitting .302/.333/.540 with four homers and 17 RBIs, and regained his starting job, finishing the season with a career-high 16 homers and 59 RBIs.

Ramos had more bad injury luck in the first game of 2014, when he broke a bone in his left hand on a foul tip, but he came back to finish another season in line with his career numbers, helping the Nats to their second division title. His numbers dipped somewhat in the frustrating 2015 season, but he remained healthy and he and the team were confident heading into the next season.

That vote of confidence and preseason laser eye surgery led to a breakout 2016 season. Ramos became the best offensive catcher in the game, blowing away his career highs in every almost offensive category. Playing in a career-best 131 games, Ramos hit .307/.354/.496, with 22 homers and 80 RBIs, and cut his strikeouts to 79 from 101 the year before. He made the NL All-Star team and won the league’s Silver Slugger for catchers.

But Ramos’ season - and career with Washington - ended on Sept. 26, after the Nats had already clinched their third NL East title, when he jumped to field a throw home and tore his right ACL, the same knee injury that had ended his 2012 season.

After rehabbing, he signed as a free agent with Tampa Bay, and played for the Rays until July 31, when they traded him to the Phillies in what turned out to be a cash deal.

One area of success that has eluded Ramos has been in the postseason, where he has played in just four games, going 2-for-17 against the Giants in 2014. Ramos was injured in 2012 and 2016. Hi luck could change in Philadelphia, where the Phillies are just a half-game back of NL East-leading Atlanta and tied with Colorado and Milwaukee in the wild card race.

It may be hard to cheer for the Phillies this week, but when Ramos comes to the plate, hopefully with his namesake walkup song by Phish blasting through Nats Park, he deserves a hearty ovation and a hearty “horns up!”

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. Follow him on Twitter: @martyball98. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. 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.

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