2008 was the dawn of a new era in Washington baseball as the Nationals left RFK Stadium to move to a beautiful new ballpark. Unfortunately, the season also saw the return to DC of something that the area had not seen in quite some time- a 100 plus loss season. Washington struggled for most of the season, finishing 59-102 on the year and looking very much like the worst team in baseball for most of the season. Still, there were some good moments to go along with the bad.
BEST OF TIMES- A Magical Opener
On on cold Sunday evening in late March, the Nationals faced the Atlanta Braves to open the season in their brand new ballpark. The game that resulted was played in the Nation’s Capital, but it seemed to be scripted in Hollywood.
Washington jumped out to a 2-0 first inning lead against its divisional rivals, scoring on Nick Johnson’s RBI double and an Austin Kearns RBI single off of Braves’ starter Tim Hudson. Atlanta “chipped” away at the lead in top of the fourth as Chipper Jones hit the first home run at the new ball yard, taking Odalis Perez deep to pull Atlanta within one run of the Nats. The Washington 2-1 lead held until the top of the ninth, but Atlanta’s Martin Prado scored from third base on a two out passed ball by Nats’ catcher Paul LoDuca to even the score at 2-2.
The bottom of the ninth is when the magic happened. After Atlanta’s Peter Moylan retired Christian Guzman and Lastings Milldege to start the frame, he tried to sneak a 1-0 pitch past Nats’ star Ryan Zimmerman. He did not. Zimmerman drove Moylan’s pitch into the seats in left-center field and Washington had a thrilling 3-2 victory, thanks to a player who had lived up to his “Mr. Walk-Off” nickname.
BEST OF TIMES- An All-Star at Shortstop
After struggling mightily in 2005 when he hit .219 in 492 plate appearances and missing the 2006 season due to injuries, Nats’ shortstop Guzman began his return to the living in 2007 when he hit .328 in an injury shortened campaign. He continued his redemption story in 2008, as his career best year earned him a spot on the National League all-star team.
Guzman posted career highs in hits (183) and doubles (35), as he hit a National League fourth best .316 on the year. He was particularly effective at home, hitting .348 in 292 plate appearances at Nationals Park. Guzman was also a thorn in the side of the eventual World Series Champion Philadelphia Phillies, torching Phillies’ pitching for a .471 average in 51 plate appearances.
BEST OF TIMES- Springing Forward in Late April/Early May
The Nats stood at a putrid 5-15 on the year as of April 21st, but played some of their best baseball of the year over the next two weeks as they went 9-3 to move to a respectable 14-18 at the close of games on May 4th.
The hot stretch included John Lannan’s seven innings of shutout ball in Washington’s 6-0 win at Atlanta on April 22nd, Wil Nieves’ walk-off two run homer (the first homer of the catcher’s career) in Washington’s 5-3 win over the Cubs on April 25th, Felipe Lopez’s walk-off hit to beat Atlanta 3-2 in 12 innings on April 30th and the Nats winning three of four against Pittsburgh from May 1st through May 4th.
WORST OF TIMES- Red Hot Weather, Ice Cold Team
Natives of the DC area know to expect heat and humidity at high levels during the summer months. 2008 provided the normal summer heat for residents of the area, but their baseball team experienced a cold spell worth of a mid-February blizzard.
From July 1st through August 20th, the Nats went 10-32 as they experienced a nine game losing streak in late July followed by a 12 game losing streak in August to end up 39 games below .500 at the close of games on August 20th.
WORST OF TIMES- Offensive on Offense
Washington’s team slugging percentage of .373 was the National League’s worst, and the worst ever posted by a Nats’ team. Seven Nats’ regulars or key bench/part-time players performed at lower than replacement level on offense as the team struggled to score runs all season long.
Player Plate Appearances Offensive WAR
Lastings Milledge 587 -0.2
Dmitri Young 180 -0.5
Aaron Boone 255 -0.6
Paul LoDuca 153 -0.9
Austin Kearns 351 -1.2
Willy Mo Pena 206 -1.3
Felipe Lopez 363 -1.7
WORST OF TIMES- We Need a Hero
Face of the franchise Ryan Zimmerman played in only 108 games on the year due to injury. Zim hit a respectable .283 with 14 homers and 51 RBI in the games he played, and the team was at 22-29 on May 25th before he was placed on the disabled list. Without Zimmerman from May 26th through July 21st, the team went 16-33.