Two Roads Diverged
Seven years ago the Washington Nationals, during their inaugural season in 2005, stood atop the NL east to the surprise of everyone. They had a four-game lead and were playing in Toronto against the Blue Jays. It was the team’s first trip back to Canada and in the Montreal sports pages they celebrated their team’s winning ways as if Prince Phillip were in town–or the French equivalent.
The mood back in Washington was equally jubilant. Average attendance at RFK Stadium was near 40,000. Among them were the fans who had carried the torch for baseball for more than thirty years, who had seen one losing season after another and then darkness. But regardless how long suffering the fans had been, they were all caught up in the newness and wonder of a pennant race. And then Nick Johnson landed on Greg Zaun’s foot as he crossed the plate late in the game on June 25th. He was hitting third in the order. He sported a .320 batting average and an on-base percentage well over .400. He was the spark to the Washington offense. When he went down, the road diverged and the Nationals took the descending path.
Johnson would be out for a month. During July 2005, the Nationals would lose eighteen games while winning only nine. Jim Bowden, the GM, tried to fill the gap with Preston Wilson, but it did not work. When Johnson returned at the end of July the team righted itself somewhat, but could not re-capture the magic. The Braves won the NL East, nine games ahead of the last place Nationals.
Since June of 2005 the fans in DC have learned a certain skepticism. They know what the July heat can bring. So when the Nationals find themselves once again at the end of June with a four-game lead on the Braves in the NL East, one cannot help but remember the last time things were at a similar fork in the road. The old Robert Frost poem about the road “less traveled by,” springs to mind.
The more traveled path–the one chosen by the losers and also-rans–has certainly seen the most wear from baseball teams in Washington, DC when they were on the road at all. Yet looking down this road of the 2012 season, to where it bends “in the undergrowth,” there is a certain unique promise. When Nick Johnson went down for the entire month of July in 2005, there was no minor league system with the ability to fill the void. The depth of talent in DC was paper thin in 2005 and so the long season wore them down.
The truth of the matter is that there is no similar figure to Nick Johnson in 2012. One could argue–as Davey Johnson has–that leadership has fallen to shortstop Ian Desmond. But Desmond would likely tell you Adam LaRoche is the glue, because there is so much more talent this time round. When Stephen Strasburg failed to halt the losing streak in Colorado two nights ago, the offense came alive like it has not all season. They won a crucial game on the road by a 12-5 score, a laugher the team badly needed.
And that is why one is tempted to say that the road looks very different this time. Ryan Zimmerman went 3-for-5 with a solo home run last night and Michael Morse 4-for-5. They are the heart of the order and neither has been healthy all season long. Zimmerman had a cortisone shot to ease his aching shoulder and it seems to be working. Adam LaRoche–he of the second half surges–hit his fourteenth and fifteenth home runs of the season. Yes it was Denver, but when a team is cold, they can be cold anywhere.
Still, the Nationals are just as green and untested as they were in 2005. The July heat in Washington will wilt almost anything and may yet take its toll on the Nationals. Yet this is a team so deep in talent that there is almost no need to add a piece at the trading deadline. And if there are holes to fill, there are players with legit credentials within the organization who can step in. There are three rookies playing almost everyday on the team as it is. Tyler Moore’s moon shot in Colorado is his third home run in 47 major league at-bats. And there are more where that came from.
Will this road take the Nationals to the playoffs? Only time will tell. But it is certainly a different road than any we have been on for many a long, long year. GM Mike Rizzo has paved it with the best pitching in the majors and now the hitting may be starting to kick in. If so, there may be streets paved with gold somewhere, but this one the Nationals are travelling is looking good enough for now. So send in those Braves!! Don’t bother they’re here.