Reporting David Elfin
A month ago tonight, a glorious baseball season in Washington came to a jarring end as the Nats blew an early 6-0 lead and lost Game 5 of the National League Division Series at home to visiting St. Louis.
That the Cardinals then fell in the NL Championship Series to San Francisco, whom the Nats had dominated during the regular season, and the Giants went on to sweep Detroit in the World Series made Washington’s oh-what-might-have-been defeat that much harder to handle.
However, this week could relieve a little of the pain as manager Davey Johnson, center fielder Bryce Harper and left hander Gio Gonzalez are all finalists for major awards which will be announced on each of the next three evenings.
Postseason individual acclaim has been almost as rare in Washington baseball history as playoff berths.
According to BaseballReference.com, flame-throwing right hander Walter Johnson is the best pitcher in baseball history. And yet, the Big Train was only voted the American League’s Most Valuable Player twice, in 1911 and 1922, in an era before pitchers were recognized with their own awards. Shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh made it two Washington MVPs in four years when the Senators won their second straight AL flag in 1925.
Baseball’s other awards were added decades later, but Washington’s only other major winners were outfielders Albie Pearson and Bob Allison, the AL Rookies of the Year in 1958 and 1959, respectively. The Senators left for Minnesota after the following season and their expansion successors’ only award winner during a 12-season run was manager Ted Williams in 1969, as voted by The Associated Press. Major League Baseball didn’t recognize a top manager in each league back then and Williams lost out to Gil Hodges of the miracle Mets for the official award.
Baseball finally returned to the nation’s capital in 2005. Outfielder Alfonso Soriano was an NL Silver Slugger the next season as was third baseman Ryan Zimmerman in 2009 and 2010. First baseman Adam LaRoche, shortstop Ian Desmond and pitcher Stephen Strasburg were so honored last week. Zimmerman (2009) and LaRoche (2012) have won Golden Gloves for the Nats.
So Washington award winners are about as frequent as traffic jam-free days on the Beltway, meaning this could be a historic week.
Johnson, the 1997 AL Manager of the Year with Baltimore, should join Tony LaRussa and Bobby Cox, each of whom retired after last season, as the only skippers to win in each league. Johnson is expected to easily beat out 1993 and 1997 winner Dusty Baker of Cincinnati, which was favored to win the NL Central, and 1996 winner Bruce Bochy of the Giants, who had won the Series just two years ago.
In contrast, the Nats had never had a winning season before Johnson guided them to 98 victories, the most in the majors, this year, his first full season in a dugout since 2000. And Johnson succeeded despite extended absences by sluggers Michael Morse, Jayson Werth and Zimmerman as well as ace Strasburg, closer Drew Storen and catcher Wilson Ramos.
Harper has been predicted for greatness since before he had a driver’s license, but he lived up to most of the hype this summer, putting together one of the best seasons ever by a teenager. He’s favored to beat out Reds outfielder/infielder Todd Frazier and Arizona pitcher Wade Miley to win Rookie of the Year honors after scoring 98 runs, driving in 59, stealing 18 bases, bashing 22 homers and hitting .270 while also displaying a cannon of an arm. Not bad for a then-19-year-old converted catcher.
Gonzalez, whom Washington acquired last December from Oakland in exchange for four elite prospects, is more of a long shot to claim the Cy Young in his competition with Mets knuckleballer/author R.A. Dickey and Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw. Gonzalez led the NL with 21 victories, but his 2.89 earned run average and 1.129 WHIP (walk plus hits/inning pitched) were both higher than those of his rivals.
If the Nats even have one major award winner, he’ll be Washington baseball’s first since before the 69-year-old Johnson turned pro 50 years ago. Two would equal the city’s total during the previous 53 seasons in which we had a franchise. Three would match the number of postseason appearances for the nation’s capital until last month. But given the Nats’ talent and youth, this should be the only the first of many Novembers in which Washington has finalists for the big awards.
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