Over the weeks leading up to the start of the 2016 season, we’ll be looking back at the ten previous years in Nationals’ history with our best of times, worst of times series. In the series, we will highlight three positives and three negatives from each season.
After 33 years without Major League Baseball, Washington’s baseball fans’ dreams were realized when the Montreal Expos relocated to the Nation’s Capital prior to the 2005 season. The season had its ups and downs, but the inaugural season for the Nationals proved to be rousing success at the gate and even at times on the field.
BEST OF TIMES- The First Series at RFK Stadium
The Nats won 5 of their first 9 games, all on the road, to get off to a better than expected start. Included in the wins were Brad Wilkerson’s hitting for the cycle to lead Washington to its first victory and two extra-inning wins over divisional rivals. On April 14, 2005 before a packed house, baseball returned to RFK Stadium. With an energy in the old stadium that had not been felt since the Redskins’ glory days from the late 80’s/early 90’s, the Nationals took the stage and did not disappoint.
Livan Hernandez’s pitching and Vinny Castilla’s hitting (3-3 with a double, triple, home run and four RBI) led the Nats to a 5-0 going into the top of the 9th. Arizona’s Chad Tracy gave the hometown crowd a bit of a scare in the top of the ninth when his home run off of Hernandez cut Washington’s lead to 5-3, but Chad Cordero retired two of the three batters he faced to earn the save and give Washington the win.
After a day off on Friday, Washington put Arizona away on Saturday April 16th behind seven innings of shutout pitching by John Patterson and a seven run seventh inning. Castilla was a star at the plate again, going three for three with a double, a homer and four RBI, and Jose Vidro chipped in with a three run double in the Nats’ big inning.
On a beautiful Sunday afternoon on the following day, Washington again used a big seventh inning (six runs scored) as the Nats rallied from a 3-0 second inning deficit to win 7-3. Nick Johnson and Vidro had two RBI apiece in the key inning.
BEST OF TIMES- 12-1 Homestand
From May 30th through June 12th the Nats played 13 straight games at RFK Stadium and went 12-1 in that time period, including 10 straight victories to end the stand. Washington was 7-1 in one-run games during the stand, and had its second walk-off win of the year on June 3rd against Florida when Ryan Church’s sacrifice fly in the 11th inning scored Jamey Carroll with the winning run. During the stand, Cordero had eight saves for Washington.
Perhaps the highlight of this magical stretch came on Sunday June 5th when Washington scored three runs in the bottom of the eighth inning to snap a 3-3 tie and earn a 6-3 win over the Marlins. The victory put Washington in first place in the National League East, marking the first time a Washington-based Major League team had been in first place that late in a season since 1943.
BEST OF TIMES- A Wrigley Field Sweep
On July 1st, the Nats began a three game series at Chicago against the Cubs. By the end of the series, Washington would have recorded a sweep and be a season high 5.5 games ahead in its division.
Friday’s game featured a sterling performance by soon-to-be All-Star Hernandez, who picked up the win to move to 12-2 on the year. Hernandez was supported by Carroll’s two RBI and by Hector Carrasco’s earning his second save of the year as Washington won 4-3.
Solid starting pitching by the Nats was the story of the game on Saturday as well, as Patterson threw seven innings of shutout ball and Jose Guillen hit his 17th homer of the year to lead Washington to a 4-2 win.
Sunday’s game was a drama-filled twelve inning affair, that saw Washington blow two run leads in both the bottom of the ninth and eleventh but still emerge with a 5-4. The winning run was scored on a home run by Nats’ catcher Brian Schneider, and Joey Eischen made sure that there wouldn’t be a third blown save recorded by a Nats’ pitcher as he retired the Cubbies in order to earn the save.
WORST OF TIMES- Late May Swoon
After defeating the Milwaukee Brewers 3-2 on May 19th, the Nationals’ record stood at 23-18 and things were looking up. Nine days later, the Nats had dropped seven of eight games (all on the road) to fall back below .500 at 24-25.
The swoon featured blowouts (Washington lost 7-0 at Toronto and 12-3 at Cincinnati) as well as heartbreaking defeats (the Nats fell 4-3 in 14 innings against the Reds), and fans were beginning to wonder if the Nats’ relative success in the first weeks of the season was fool’s gold.
WORST OF TIMES- POST-ALL STAR GAME BLUES
From mid-July into early August, the Nats and their fans experienced a downturn that made the May swoon look like a walk in the park. Washington came out of the All-Star break in first place, but promptly lost five of seven games in a two town trip to Milwaukee and Colorado before returning home where they lost three of four to Houston. Visits to Atlanta (0-3) and Florida (1-2) were equally fruitless, and Washington saw its gaudy 52-36 pre-break record fall to 56-49 as a result of the 4-13 stretch.
The chief culprit for the downturn was the lack of offensive production, as the Nationals scored four or more runs only six times during the 17 game period.
WORST OF TIMES- CALIFORNIA DREAM TURNS INTO A NIGHTMARE
After sweeping the New York Mets at Shea Stadium in the second full week of September, the Nationals were legitimate wild-card contenders as they traveled to San Diego to face the Padres beginning on September 16th. A 5-1 win over the home team moved Washington within three games of the wildcard lead, and it appeared that the unexpected (a post season berth in the team’s first year in DC) might happen.
When Washington took a commanding 5-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth on Saturday September 17th, it appeared that Frank Robinson’s gritty team might be moving a step closer to playing October baseball. Washington retired two of the first three Padres batters with only a walk allowed, and things looked even better for the Nats. Unfortunately, that’s when the bottom fell out.
After the Nats’ allowed a run to make the score 5-1, it still looked like a sure victory for Washington with Cordero on the mound and light-hitting Khalil Greene at the plate for San Diego. That was until Greene drove a Cordero pitch deep into the heavy Pacific Coast evening air for a grand-slam that tied the game at 5-5 and gave all of us watching on TV back east an immediate onset of indigestion.
Three innings later, Roberto Hernandez drove a three run homer out of Petco Park to give San Diego an 8-5 walk-off win. The Padres would win on Sunday as well, and Washington would lose five of its next six contests as well to fall out of playoff contention.