Reporting David Elfin
A baseball pennant race evolves slowly. No other sport competes nearly every day for six months. And yet, in the long slog of 162 games, there are defining moments that can be looked back at come October, or even for years to come, as a time when a contender became a champion.
In 1951, the New York Giants – who hadn’t won a pennant in 14 years — trailed the arch-rival and defending two-time National League champion Brooklyn Dodgers by 11.5 games as the teams prepared to battle at the Polo Grounds on Aug. 15. It was 1-1 in the eighth when Giants backup catcher Wes Westrum slugged a two-run homer off Dodgers right-hander Ralph Branca to give New York the second of three straight narrow victories over Brooklyn. Seven weeks to the day in a one-game playoff between the Dodgers and Giants, Bobby Thomson put the home team in the World Series with a ninth-inning homer off Branca that remains one of the most dramatic moments in baseball history.
In 1979, the Baltimore Orioles – who hadn’t won the American League flag in eight years – had seen their division lead slip to 1.5 games after losing to Dave LaRoche (father of current Nats first baseman Adam LaRoche) and the eventual West Division champion California Angels on July 19. Mike Flanagan shut out the visiting Angels the next night and on Saturday, Rich Dauer singled home a run in the seventh to give Scott McGregor a 2-1 victory. The Orioles never led the East by fewer than 2.5 games the rest of the way en route to the Series.
The 2012 Nats may well have had their defining moment last night. At first blush, it was just the penultimate game of the first half against a non-division rival at home. However, to those of us who watched the 6-5 victory over the San Francisco Giants unfold in person, it was so much more than that.
After all, the Giants were the defending champs just last season and, thanks to their superb starting pitching, they led the NL West when they arrived at Nats Park on Tuesday. Washington, already the surprise NL East leader after never finishing over .500 during its previous seven seasons, clobbered two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum on Tuesday night and rising right-hander Madison Bumgarner on Wednesday morning. But that still left the toughest challenege for last night. San Francisco ace Matt Cain was 9-3 with a 2.53 earned run average and had pitched just the 22nd perfect game in baseball history 22 days earlier.
So when Cain took the mound in the bottom of the seventh having allowed just four hits and holding a 5-1 lead, there was no way the Nats were going to come back. But shortstop Ian Desmond and second baseman Danny Espinosa blasted consecutive homers and pinch-hitter Mark DeRosa, who was hitting .114, doubled. Steve Lombardozzi singled off reliever Jeremy Affeldt before19-year-old Bryce Harper doubled DeRosa home to make it 5-4.
That was still the score when rookie Tyler Moore led off the ninth with a pinch-hit double off Santiago Casilla. The Giants’ closer then booted Lombardozzi’s sacrifice bunt and the Nats had runners on the corners with no one out. Harper singled to tie the game and San Francisco walked third baseman Ryan Zimmerman to set up a force at home, a strategy that right fielder Michael Morse quickly obliged. When LaRoche hit a sure double-play grounder, the game was headed to extra innings. Instead, Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford made a poor throw while trying to turn two and the lumbering LaRoche got to the bag first as Harper scored to give Washington a thrilling 6-5 victory.
“Those are the things that have happened to us this year,” said Zimmerman, the only player left from the franchise’s 2005 Washington debut. “We’ve caught some breaks, and more importantly, we’ve taken advantage of those breaks. Good teams do that.”
At 48-32, the Nats are seriously good. They’re playing .600 baseball which puts them atop the East by 4.5 games, ahead of everyone in the NL and just a half game behind the New York Yankees and the defending AL champion Texas Rangers for baseball’s best record.
Giants second baseman Ryan Theriot, who won a ring with St. Louis last season, said the Nats are “right up there” with the Rangers, whom the Cardinals edged in seven games to win the Series a little over eight months ago.
The Nats and Giants wore throwback uniforms from their 1924 World Series matchup last night. There was no loud music in the ballpark. The ushers wore straw boaters and veteran announcers Charlie Brotman and Phil Hochberg narrated highlights of that Series in which Washington rallied to win Games 6 and 7 at home, the latter in an improbable, breaks-filled 12th-inning miracle to give the nation’s capital its only baseball championship. If we’re celebrating a second come October, we should look back to July 5 as a night when dreams began turning into reality.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin