November 12, 2019

New Big Train Sightings in DC

October 5, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

In the 1924 World Series, Walter Johnson lost Game One and Game Five. He was nearly 37 years old and it appeared that even his storied career of invincible tenacity was at an end. The Series was tied three games apiece between John McGraw’s New York Giants and Clark Griffith’s Washington Nationals. Curly Ogden pitched only a third of an inning to start Game Seven for the Nationals. It was the first deception employed by manager, Bucky Harris. He warmed left-hander George Mogridge beneath the stands to replace the right-handed Ogden in hopes of getting McGraw to start a weaker lineup to face the right-hander.

McGraw went with High Pockets Kelly anyway and Mogridge was into the game after Ogden faced only two batters. But it was all-hands-on-deck for both teams, regardless. The Giants relieved starter Virgil Barnes with Art Nehf and Hugh McQuillan, both of whom had been used primarily as starters during the season. Pitching was the significant variable for both teams as all six of the first games were remarkably tight affairs. Tom Zachary had pitched the game of his life in Game Six to win by a 2-1 score that evened the series up at three game apiece and gave Washington a shot at the championship in the deciding Game Seven in DC.

Rookie manager of the Nationals, Bucky Harris, consulted with owner Clark Griffith about his options going into the final game. They agreed on using Ogden and also talked about a more crucial idea, that of bringing Walter Johnson into Game Seven in the late innings if needed. The Big Train had pitched two days earlier, going all eight innings in the 6-2 loss to the Giants. There was no reason to believe the aging pitcher would have anything left, but nonetheless, Harris wanted the Old Fox to approve the idea upfront.

In that famously historic Game Seven, at the end of eight innings, the score was knotted at three runs apiece. Harris sent Walter Johnson down to warm up in plain sight during the Nationals half of the eighth inning and when the crowd saw their stalwart readying for action they began shouting, “We Want Johnson.” According to Hank Thomas–author of Walter Johnson, Baseball’s Big Train–the crowd noise was so loud that it un-nerved Virgil Barnes who walked Bennie Tate to load the bases in the bottom of the eighth inning, a walk that setup the bad-hop single by Bucky Harris that plated the two runs to tie.

Johnson pitched four innings of scoreless relief after that and the Nationals won their only World Series by the score of 4-3. It set off a celebration that the nation’s capital has seen only once in the century and a half that baseball has been played here. In looking back at those events from this long temporal distance, it is impossible not to see the parallels with the current situation that has unfolded in DC.

First, there is the bottom of the eighth inning rally that ties the game on Tuesday night against the Brewers. It was a first Wild Card game, the first Wild Card win and the first clutch delivery for any Nationals team in the post season. But it is the three innings of spotless relief by Stephen Strasburg that are the more remarkable parallel to what Walter Johnson was able to do in October of 1924.

In both instances, it was a do-or-die affair, a game of decision that left no room for sitting and watching the action. But Walter Johnson had relieved in many games during the early years of his career. In 1913, Walter Johnson’s MVP season, he started 36 games, finished ten and had two saves over the course of 48 appearances and 346 innings. But in 1924 Big Train was only being used as a starter. He had cut back his innings to a mere 261 for the season.

Stephen Strasburg had never relieved in his career as a professional pitcher and so it was unknown how he would respond. Moreover, Stras earned the moniker, “the Orchid” several years ago for his temperamental nature as a pitcher and his need for “perfect conditions” to thrive. It is safe to say that number 37 dispensed with those aspersions on Tuesday night. He allowed no runs and only two hits during his three-inning relief stint. He threw only 34 pitches and recorded four strikeouts and with each inning, the momentum was clearly swinging back to the Nationals. They have won in the late innings so many times in the second half of 2019 and the fans in the park sensed the looming possibility of another miracle. When Juan Soto drove in all three baserunners to put Washington on top by a score of 4-3, the delirium was almost predictable.

Yet for all those theatrics, and the well-deserved accolades that Strasburg garnered for that gutty performance, he exceeded them last night in Game Two against the Dodgers in the National League Divisional Series. All semblance of Wild Card euphoria had been dispelled in DC by the Game One loss to Los Angeles on Thursday night–the 6-0 score particularly disheartening. The bullpen had imploded and the offense was still at 35,000 feet somewhere over an Iowa cornfield. But Strasburg picked them up and carried them on his shoulders like a hero of old.

He had a perfect game for four and two-third innings, when Will Smith, Dodger catcher, took a low pitch and drilled it for a single. The Dodger faithful had been hushed by the dominating pitching performance, but now came the flip side and the sense that Strasburg might unravel at any moment. “How much gas did the Orchid have in him?” The answer came an inning later when Strasburg gave up a single, a double and a sacrifice fly to make the score 3-1 Nationals. But he finished that inning with no further damage. Taken together with the game on Tuesday night it could arguably be his best nine innings over his ten-year MLB career. Nationals manager, Davey Martinez, took Strasburg out after the sixth and 85 pitches. Strasburg logged ten strikeouts and when you add the four from Tuesday night, it is a nine inning, fourteen strikeout performance in which he allowed six hits and a single run. It was enough to earn Strasburg both the win on Tuesday against the Brewers and again on Friday night versus the Dodgers.

Walter Johnson would have been proud to see a Nationals pitcher display as much grit and fortitude as Strasburg.

And then there was Max Scherzer. Mad Max started the Tuesday Wild Card game. There had been a brief discussion about whether it should be Strasburg or Scherzer. But manager Martinez knew that Mad Max is the heart and soul within the competitive spirit of the team. Despite that vote of confidence, he gave up three runs early against Milwaukee.  He lasted only through five innings, but was scheduled to pitch again on Sunday on regular rest in the third game of the NLDS, the first in Nationals Park in 2019.

The first indication that something else was afoot was seeing Scherzer watching the action with the other bullpen relievers from beyond the outfield wall. It was exactly that bullpen that cost both Scherzer and Strasburg numerous fine starts during the 2019 season. Whatever additions GM Mike Rizzo made, the results improved only at the margins and they remained statistically a benchmark for disaster among National League bullpens.

Martinez had spoken to all of the starters about the need to make whatever contribution was necessary to beat the Dodgers. If that included pitching in relief, so be it. So after the Nationals had stretched their lead over Los Angeles to 4-2 in the top of the eighth inning, Scherzer came into the game to bolster the sagging DC pen. Like the Mad Max of old, he struck out the side with outrageous stuff. He preserved the lead and handed the ball over to Daniel Hudson who closed out the Dodgers and, with a 4-2 win, took the action back to Washington.

Scherzer had been scheduled to start that game, but will be pushed back to Monday, putting Anibal Sanchez on the bump for Game Three. Regardless what happens in the 2019 NLDS, Scherzer and Strasburg have laid down a marker for excellence that hasn’t been seen recently in the majors. Nor has it been seen in Washington, DC in a very long time. There has been a question floating around the baseball circuit for the last decade, dating back to the 2012 NLDS when the Washington Nationals lost in five games to the St. Louis Cardinals. They have been the better team and the favorites numerous times, but never have been able to deliver in the clutch.

“What does it take for the Nationals to win in the post season?” the pundits have asked. Maybe it takes the kind of all-out, unflinching commitment shown by Scherzer and Strasburg. Maybe it takes the ghost of Walter Johnson moving among the pitching staff and urging more out of them than they ever thought they had. It has been a very long time since any Washington baseball team gave it that kind of effort. It is good to see it, and we can hope it carries forward for the next week, for the rest of the month, for the next year, and for as long as fans in Washington, DC can remember the Big Train and how he made it all happen in 1924.

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