Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Stephen Strasburg's arrival highlighted the first half of the Nationals' season.
Quite a bit has happened in NatsTown since Barack Obama threw out the first pitch on April 5, from that Opening Day debacle against the Phillies to a string of dramatic victories over the last week. There's plenty to rehash, analyze and criticize, and there's plenty to look ahead to in the season's second half.
I'll try to touch on all of that the next few days as the All-Star break continues, but I wanted to start with a look back at the most significant moments of the first half. Here are some of the best (and the worst) of the last 3 1/2 months...
July 3: Nats 6, Mets 5
What began as Strasmas VI, with a sellout crowd at Nationals Park (and a national TV audience on Fox) eager to watch Stephen Strasburg take down the Mets on Independence Eve, turned into something far more incredible. Strasburg labored through five innings, though he kept the damage to only two runs. When Tyler Clippard entered for the eighth and allowed three runs to put New York up 5-2, the day looked ruined. Many fans streamed for the exits. Not so fast, folks. The Nats rallied in stunning fashion in the bottom of the ninth. Adam Dunn nearly clubbed a walk-off grand slam off Francisco Rodriguez, instead settling for a controversial double off the top of the wall that nearly led to a collision at third base between Cristian Guzman and Willie Harris. No matter, because two batters later, Ivan Rodriguez singled past a five-man infield to bring the winning run home in the wildest game of the year to date. Leave it to the always-quotable Drew Storen to put this one in perspective: "Today was a reminder of why baseball is so great."
April 5: Phillies 11, Nats 1
Is there anything worse than playing your worst game of the season on Opening Day? Well, yeah, playing your worst game of the season on Opening Day with the President of the United States and 20,000 Phillies fans in attendance. It was a debacle on many levels, and it offered some clues for what was to come. John Lannan struggled through the first of many poor starts that ultimately earned him a ticket to Harrisburg. Ian Desmond committed an error on his first chance of the season. Willie Harris, the Opening Day right fielder and No. 2 hitter, went 0-for-4. It was an embarrassing start to the season, and it left many worried that nothing really had changed in NatsTown.
BEST OFFENSIVE PERFORMANCE
July 7: Adam Dunn
Dunn has hit 338 home runs in a career that has regularly boasted 40-homer seasons. But the big guy had never hit three in one game. Until last week, when he blasted the Padres for a hat trick that earned him a curtain call. The performance also prompted fans and media members alike to scream for the Nats to re-sign the pending free agent and not trade him away before the end of the month. In the Nationals' brief history, only one other player has homered three times in a game: Alfonso Soriano, who also was the subject of trade rumors leading up to the July 31 deadline. The Nats didn't deal Soriano, and they didn't re-sign him either. Instead, they let him walk as a free agent and received two draft picks as compensation (Jordan Zimmermann and Josh Smoker).
WORST OFFENSIVE PERFORMANCE
June 16: Nyjer Morgan
Full disclaimer: It's not fair to rip on one guy for one bad day at the plate. But Morgan's performance that evening in Detroit was wretched. He was simply no match for Tigers ace Justin Verlander. He struck out looking in the first inning. He struck out swinging in the third inning. He again struck out swinging in the fifth. And then, with a shot at the Golden Sombrero in the eighth, he weakly grounded Verlander's first pitch to third base to finish 0-for-4. Not the best night for Nyjer, who had been frustrating fans for weeks with his inability to get on base.
BEST PITCHING PERFORMANCE
June 8: Stephen Strasburg
I briefly considered giving this to Scott Olsen, who on May 6 carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning against the Braves. It was a fabulous performance for a guy who really did pitch well before his surgically repaired shoulder finally caved in. But come on, how could Strasburg's debut not be the choice? With all that hoopla and pressure surrounding him, with a sellout crowd on hand and a media contingent that rivaled one you'd see at a postseason series, the 21-year-old surpassed everyone's expectations with a performance for the ages. Fourteen strikeouts, including seven in a row to end his night. We all witnessed the birth of a phenomenon, and we may never again see anything like it.
WORST PITCHING PERFORMANCE
April 18: Jason Marquis
It was bad enough that Marquis failed to retire any of the seven Brewers he faced that afternoon. It was worse that all seven wound up scoring. It was even worse that this was the right-hander's third straight ugly start to open the season. The real kicker, though, was that a few days later, Marquis would acknowledge there was something wrong with his elbow. An MRI revealed bone chips, so he went under the knife to remove them and hasn't returned since. Did we mention the Nats signed this guy last winter to a two-year, $15 million contract primarily because of his rock-solid reputation as a workhorse who never got hurt?
BEST DEFENSIVE PERFORMANCE
June 25: Nyjer Morgan
Morgan has been criticized plenty for his misplays in center field this season (more on that in a moment) but you'd be hard-pressed to find a better play made all year than Nyjer's leap at the wall at Camden Yards to rob Corey Patterson of a home run. Shoot, it even left J.D. Martin (the least-animated guy on the roster) screaming in disbelief. Just an incredible play. (Honorable mention to Willie Harris for his game-saving catch at Citi Field on April 10. It prompted me to come up what I have to humbly admit was one of my favorite game stories I've ever written.)
WORST DEFENSIVE PERFORMANCE
May 22: Nyjer Morgan
Boy, Nyjer sure has figured into a lot of significant events this season, hasn't he? Shows you just how important he is to this team, both in good and bad ways. There's no sugarcoating his gaffe against the Orioles one month before that spectacular catch against the same team. His misplay of Adam Jones' drive off the center field wall was bad. His subsequent reaction was embarrassing. Morgan slammed his glove to the ground, believing the ball had crossed the fence for a home run. The only problem: The ball was sitting about 10 feet to his left. By the time Josh Willingham came all the way over from left field to retrieve it, Jones had an inside-the-park home run. It was the second inside-the-parker hit against the Nats in four days. Both involved Morgan.
So there are just a few of the many highlights from the season's first half. I'm curious what everyone else thinks. Do you agree with these choices, or would you pick any other moments as the best/worst?
Plenty more first-half analysis and second-half preview to come in the next three days...