An Oral History of the 2015 Nationals
The Washington Nationals’ 2015 season began on April 6, 2015 against the New York Mets, little did they know at the time that this would be the team with which their fate would be intertwined. Heavy World Series favorites and with prized free agent acquisition Max Scherzer on the mound, the excitement in DC was palpable.
Ian Desmond, Shortstop: What I remember most was walking into the clubhouse for the first time and seeing Frank Robinson there. I thought we had fired Matt Williams at the last minute and Robinson would take over again and was over the moon. Zim had to calm me down and tell me that Frank was only there to throw out the first pitch and Matt was still manager. Honestly, it took me a few months to get over my disappointment.
Max Scherzer, Pitcher: The day before the game I decided to go for a walk around DC, really get a feeling for this new city that I would be representing the next day. While walking through Farragut Square I came across a homeless man that ran up to me and told me he could make sure I had the best season of my career, all I had to do was bring him a bagel with cream cheese the morning before every home start. I laughed him off and continued on my way.
Bryce Harper, Outfielder: I loved all of it. I love DC. I love baseball, watching it, playing it. The whole history of the game. Opening Days. Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Derek Jeter, they all played in Opening Days. And here I was, in a city I love, surrounded by teammates I love and fans I love, playing in an Opening Day, just like the Mick. It was incredible, I loved it.
The big unveiling didn’t go quite as planned though. Baseball’s ageless wonder, Bartolo Colon, went six innings, allowing only one run on a Harper solo home run in the 4th, while striking out eight. Scherzer also struck out eight and threw 7.2 innings, but two Desmond errors did him in, as he allowed three unearned runs and the Nats lost 3-1.
Scherzer: After that game I re-thought the day before. I mean I had pitched perfectly, but then a couple of bad luck errors and I’m the losing pitcher. I decided that a bagel with cream cheese was a small price to pay for the best season of my career. Luckily the homeless man hadn’t left his bench in the park by my next start and while stubborn, accepted my offering.
Harper: That home run was exhilarating. Just being a part of the history and pageantry of an Opening Day and hitting my third opening day home run. I was so honored to add a little slice to the history of this great game and it reminded me of how much I love the game of baseball.
Desmond: After that moment with Robinson I couldn’t keep my focus. All I could think about was how much better it would be if he were our manager. Honestly, my mind just wasn’t in the game anymore and that’s what led to the errors.
Matt Williams, manager: I wasn’t concerned with the loss. It was just one game and we had many more on the schedule we needed to play.
And play more games the Nationals did, but with Jayson Werth, Denard Span and Anthony Rendon all missing the start of the season with injuries things didn’t get much better. Werth returned by game 7, when the Nats were 2-5. By April 27 the Nats were 7-13 and eight games behind the Mets for first in the division, having just been beaten 8-4 by the lowly Atlanta Braves when backup second baseman Dan Uggla said they need to “sack up”.
Danny Espinosa, infielder: I didn’t really know what he meant we don’t have any sacks in the clubhouse and the grammar is poor. Did he want us to pick some sacks up? But then what we do with them afterwards? It was very confusing. Anyways it was still really inspiring; everyone in the clubhouse was energized again.
Tyler Moore, backup first baseman/outfielder: While it was inspiring I object to the misogynistic implication that one has to be a man with testicles in order to complete a difficult task. Women are every bit as capable of rolling up their sleeves and doing the dirty work that needs to be done, as they’ve shown throughout the history of this country. I’m glad he didn’t use the clichéd “man up”, but this is hardly better.
Dan Uggla, backup infielder: It just came to me you know? This team wasn’t doing well and while I wasn’t really playing at all I still felt the energy to try to inspire the room. I kind of blacked out when it happened and next thing I know everyone’s chanting “sack up” at me. Except Jayson [Werth], he was staring daggers right at me from across the room.
Jayson Werth, left fielder: Well Dan Kolko, it was an inspiring sentiment and all, but that’s my job. I’m the leader of this team and I’m the one who gives inspiring speeches to the team and instant quotes to the media. I didn’t know Dan Uggla was even on the freaking team. Trust me, I made sure that little mistake didn’t happen again.
Williams: Well we had a game to play the next day.
They did, and at the start it looked like Uggla’s inspiring words wouldn’t pull the Nats out of it as they quickly fell into a 9-1 deficit after the second inning. Then, like magic, they started chipping away until the same Dan Uggla came up to the plate in the top of the ninth with two men on and the Nats trailing 12-10. What happened next was nothing short of a miracle, Uggla blasted a three run homer to give the Nats a needed win.
Uggla: Hitting that home run was one the best moments of my life, because it came in Atlanta. Those rubes booed and hated me and I loved shutting them up. I would’ve stood on that field mocking them for the rest of my days, but Harp hugged me and took me into the dugout to celebrate. I regret not giving those idiots the finger like Mike Vick did, but that was a great hug.
Harper: Well after the home run I was so excited. I just love baseball and could feel the history being made in this great game. I love my teammates and I loved seeing Uggla get to have that moment. That love just came pouring out and I had to give him the biggest bear hug ever. That was a top three hug for me.
Williams: Well we had a game to play the next day and that’s what I was focused on.
The magic didn’t stop there. Finally fully healthy, the Nationals went on to win 20 of their next 25 games to move to 27-18 and 2.5 games ahead of the Mets for the division. And even more good news came on June 9 when 2014 MVP runner up Anthony Rendon returned to the lineup.
Anthony Rendon, third baseman playing second: I was so relieved to be back in the lineup. I hate having to sit around and watch baseball, it’s so boring. I only play baseball. In fact, I’m bored just talking about baseball – Mr. Rendon suddenly fell into a deep slumber.
On June 20 things would become even more magical for the Nationals as Scherzer would pitch the game of his life, getting two outs into the ninth of a perfect game at Nationals Park against the Pittsburgh Pirates. He hit Jose Tabata with a pitch to ruin the perfect game bid, but retired the next batter to claim the second no hitter in Nationals’ history and the first of his career.
Scherzer: Since that first game I had been faithfully delivering an everything bagel with cream cheese to the homeless man before each of my home starts. However, on June 20 I got to the bagel store late and they were out of everything, so I got him a plain. It was still good, but clearly not the same. I’m convinced that’s why I only threw the no hitter.
Harper: I loved the no hitter, being a part of baseball history like that is why I love my job. Scherzer is awesome and had an amazing game, can you imagine if he completed the perfect game? That would’ve been amazing! There’s only 23 official perfect games ever, we would’ve been immortalized in baseball history. But a no hitter is great too and I was honored to be a part of it.
Williams: It was one game of many and I was focused on the games ahead.
Injuries struck again as Span, Rendon and Werth all went out in mid-June. However, that didn’t slow the Nationals down as they rolled into the All Star break 48-39 and two games ahead of the Mets in the NL East.
Harper: Being able to start in the All Star Game was an amazing experience and I loved being a part of baseball history. Players like Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra had started in All Star Games and now here I was doing the same. I loved being a part of the history of this beautiful game.
Desmond: I still couldn’t get over my Robinson disappointment from opening day and it was really affecting my play. I just couldn’t get into the game when I was thinking about how Frank Robinson could’ve been my manager instead of this bald doofus. Finally I reached out to [bench coach] Randy Knorr for some help.
Randy Knorr, bench coach: I told Ian the only thing I could think of “stop swinging so hard to try to impress Robinson into coming and be yourself. If it’s truly meant to be that will be enough.”
Desmond: Well that took a big weight off my shoulders and I was able to play the game again without worrying about what Frank was thinking.
Scherzer: After coming back from the All Star Game I went to Farragut Square the morning of my first start like I always had but the homeless man wasn’t there. I kept going back before each start but I never saw him again. Nothing felt right on the mound anymore and I struggled to find the magic again.
And it wasn’t only Scherzer who was searching for the magic of May. Despite taking 2 of 3 from the Mets the Nats struggled through the rest of July, unable to create separation between them and the Mets. With Werth, Zimmerman and Rendon set to return near the end of the month they made a bold move trading for closer Jonathan Papelbon to shore up their bullpen.
Mike Rizzo, General Manager: Mike Rizzo in his infinite wisdom decided that what Mike Rizzo’s Nationals needed was some help in the bullpen, mainly at closer. And what Mike Rizzo wants Mike Rizzo gets. So Mike Rizzo went and got a great closer in Jonathan Papelbon. Another brilliant move by Mike Rizzo for Mike Rizzo’s Nationals.
Jonathan Papelbon, Closer: Man-I-was-on-the-dang-old-Phillies-and-they-dang-old-suck-dadgummit-and-I-demanded-to-get-on-the-dang-old-dang-old-Nationals-so-I-could-uh-com-pete-dangit.
Drew Storen, former closer, eighth inning guy: I couldn’t believe the mistreatment I got. My father is a very powerful man who knows many powerful people and I told the Nationals that I would be telling him and they would be hearing from him forthwith.
Werth: Well Dan Kolko everything seemed to be coming together. I was back, Zimmy was back, Rendony was back and we had Papelbony coming in and I was back. I’m the leader of this team and with me back it was certain that everyone and everything would fall into line.
But everything didn’t fall into line, in fact it got much worse. The Nationals were swept by the Mets to lose their entire division lead and fall into a tie, all without seeing Jonathan Papelbon or Drew Storen take the mound.
Storen: My father was livid.
Williams: I took it one game at a time and those games were just like any other game on our schedule, one that needed to be and was played.
Things went from bad to worse as the Nationals had the month from hell. By the end of August they were 66-64 and 6.5 games behind the Mets for the division lead. Key players like Werth and Storen struggled mightily while Williams seemed overwhelmed by the job.
Werth: Well Dan Kolko Jayson Werth doesn’t fail and he doesn’t make mistakes. As a team leader I determined the best course of action was to fall behind so that we could have an inspiring September comeback.
Storen: When the Nationals refused to acquiesce to my father’s demands I had to take things into my own hands and refused to perform well while they continued to disrespect me and my family. It was my father’s idea.
Williams: We still had games to play on the schedule.
The Nationals made one last push to get within four games of the Mets entering a three game series at Nationals Park against the division leader.
Harper: I was pumped, September chases are a huge part of baseball history and now I thought I had my chance to be a part of one. I love this beautiful game and being able to be a fabric of its history is a tremendous honor.
Rendon: [Loud snoring noises, like a buzzsaw]
Werth: Well as I had planned all along our big September comeback was underway and the next step of the plan was a sweep of the Mets to get within a game. Others in the clubhouse who perceived themselves to be the leader or “manager” got in the way of that plan of course.
The Nationals dropped the first game after Scherzer struggled six innings. He was tacked to a 5-3 lead after the fourth but gave up two runs to leave the game tied. Then Blake Treinen, Felipe Rivero and Casey Janssen each gave up a run in the seventh to hand the Nats an 8-5 loss.
Scherzer: That was the first day I didn’t bother to look for the homeless man in Farragut Square and I regret that decision to this day. I should’ve gone, even if he wasn’t going to be there, it was so much worse than the alternative.
Williams: We had another game to play the next day.
They did, but things didn’t get much better. After jumping out to a 7-1 lead the seventh inning reared its ugly head again, Treinen, Rivero and Storen combined to give up 6 runs and leave the game tied. Storen was the worst of the bunch, allowing Yoenis Cespedes’ three run double, then walking three straight batters to bring in the tying run. Papelbon then gave up the winning home run the next inning.
Storen: As if moving me to the eighth inning wasn’t insulting enough they had the gall to ask me to pitch in the seventh. Drew Storen does not pitch in the seventh! I was in disgust and talked to my father immediately after the game. He told me that I should give the team one more chance but was livid.
Williams: If I remember correctly, there was a game to play the next day,
Needing to salvage at least one game the Nationals got a big Bryce Harper home run and some great pitching from Stephen Strasburg to take a 2-1 lead into the eighth when Storen was called upon to finish the inning after Strasburg exited with a runner on. He gave up a home run to Yoenis Cespedes to break the game open and give the Mets another sweep.
Storen: Asking me to clean up another man’s mess was the last straw. I’m Drew Storen! My father is a very important man and I won’t stand for treatment like this! I followed my father’s advice and decided that if this was the treatment I was going to get I was better off leaving. So I broke my thumb and left this rude team for good.
Harper: I love baseball so much and I love the mystique of the home run. Roger Maris once hit 61 of them and to have two in such an important game was an incredible honor. Unfortunately the team result wasn’t what I wanted. I did not love that.
Werth: Well Dan Kolko after that my plan was ruined. The manager man saw to that. All of my beautiful, genius work planning out our triumphant division win and playoff success was all for naught as that foolish man threw away the season.
Williams: We still had some games left to play.
That was pretty much it for the Nats. They were now seven games out well into September. And they had some more bad news, Ryan Zimmerman had missed the last two games of the Mets series and didn’t return again that season.
Ryan Zimmerman, first baseman: Look I wasn’t really injured. But I’ve been a Washington National for 11 years and this franchise has really sucked for most of those years. It wears on you after a while. And this year was supposed to be so good but I knew that it was over after that first Mets game. It was too much, I just couldn’t take it anymore. So I faked the injury so I could get out of there, get some rest for once.
The Nationals played out the string, never getting closer than four games to the Mets. Then all hell broke loose in the second-to-last home game of the season when Papelbon and Harper began yelling at each other before Papelbon lunged at Harper’s throat and shoved him into the back of the dugout. Harper left in disgust while Williams put Papelbon back on the mound to get shelled in a Nats loss.
Harper: All I was trying to do was tell Papelbon about how great this game is and its wonderful history as the national pastime and just how much I love it. I talked about how I loved DC, the fans and my teammates. Well he didn’t seem to like that last part.
Moore: It was the classic reaction of an old white cis male who can’t handle the changing culture and the new way a modern man shows intimacy to another man.
Williams [to reporters after the game on why he left Papelbon in: “He’s our closer.”
As the season wound down the Nationals said goodbye to long time stalwarts Jordan Zimmermann and Ian Desmond, who will be free agents, but there was one last reward for Nats fans who stuck with the team. On October 3, Max Scherzer had his second no hitter of the season, again one play, a Yunel Escobar error, away from a perfect game. He also broke his own Nationals record with 17 strikeouts.
Scherzer: Like I said, I never saw the homeless man again. But on the morning before the game a young woman came to my hotel room and told me she was the man’s daughter and that he had passed away over the All Star break. She lived in New York but heard constantly from him about the nice baseball player who always brought him a bagel and cream cheese. It turned out he wasn’t magic, he was just a man who wanted some breakfast and that I had the power to pitch that well inside me all along.
Harper: I was finishing off a historical season of my own and then bam! Max puts his name right into the annals of baseball history. I love this game and it was an honor to bear witness to such an historic moment.
Williams: We still had a game left on the schedule.
The Nationals lost their final game to the Mets to finish 83-79. Far from the lofty expectations they held at the beginning of the season. The next day manager Matt Williams and his coaching staff were fired.
Rizzo: Mike Rizzo does not tolerate failure from Mike Rizzo’s Nationals and Mike Rizzo determined that the man to blame for the failure was Matt Williams so Mike Rizzo fired him from Mike Rizzo’s Nationals.
Werth: Well Dan Kolko I think everyone understands now who the real leader of the clubhouse is.
Williams: There were no more games left on the schedule to play.