With this year-ending Top 5 list, we look back at five stories that for one reason or another were our favorites from the 2013 season. They aren't necessarily the biggest stories of the year for the 2013 Washington Nationals, but more stories that we were happy to be there to cover or stories that were fun to write, were unique or for some other reason stuck with us when the season was over.
First on our list was Davey Johnson delivering "breaking news" to reporters about a scouting report Branch Rickey wrote on the then-21-year-old Johnson when he was still a prospect in the Baltimore Orioles' organization. The second story on our list featured Kris Kline and Roy Clark talking about the Nats' top pick in last June's draft. Our conversation with Gio Gonzalez was no.3 of 5 and no.4 focused on a series of connected conversations Davey Johnson had with reporters that linked Ian Desmond to the no.20 he honors with the number on his own jersey, Frank Robinson.
So what is no.1 on the list? In a disappointing season, was there any bigger disappointment than the way Washington's season series against their NL East rivals from Atlanta went?
FBB's Top 5 Stories Of 2013
The Nationals were 14-5 against the Miami Marlins, 12-7 against the New York Mets, 11-8 against the Philadelphia Phillies and 6-13 vs Atlanta in 2013. The Braves ran away with the division and kicked sand in the Nats' faces as they did so. If there wasn't any real rivalry between the two franchises before this past season, there was one when the it ended and it all came to a head over a two-week stretch in mid-August which provided what is probably my favorite quote of the season.
In the third inning of the Nationals and Braves' game in D.C. on August 6th, Bryce Harper hit a home run off right-hander Julio Teheran that landed on the putting green in center field in Nationals Park. The next time Harper stepped up, Teheran hit the Nats' 20-year-old outfielder in the leg. Harper gestured toward the mound and shared his thoughts with the pitcher as he walked toward first. Brian McCann got between Harper and Teheran and instructed the Nats' second-year outfielder on the game's unwritten rules. After the game, Harper was asked if he was surprised he got hit after hitting the home run?
"I hit that ball pretty far off him," Harper said, "so no, not really."
Here's what happened between the Nationals and the Braves this season, the biggest story of the year in a disappointing campaign in the nation's capital...
• August 6th, Washington, D.C. - Benches Clear In D.C. After HBP On Bryce Harper Stirs Up Nationals And Braves' Rivalry:
"Is their pitching that good?" 70-year-old skipper Davey Johnson asked after his Washington Nationals lost a 2-1 game to the Atlanta Braves Tuesday night, dropping a second straight low scoring, one-run game to their divisional rivals. The Nationals managed just five hits, one of them a home run by Bryce Harper...
"Or are we just..." the Nats' manager trailed off. "I don't know. I don't have the answer."
With the loss at home in Nationals Park, the 2012 NL East Division Champs fell to 54-59 overall, 14.5 games out of first behind the 69-45 Braves. Harper's 410-15 ft blast to center field would account for the only run of the game for the home team.
In his next at bat after the home run, Harper was hit by a pitch from 22-year-old Braves' right-hander Julio Teheran. Anthony Rendon had doubled to start the fifth inning, but Gio Gonzalez popped up a bunt attempt in the next at bat, bringing Harper to the plate with a runner on second and one out.
Harper took exception to what he thought was an intentional HBP and a mid-90s heater and the 20-year-old Nats' slugger addressed his complaints directly to the opposing pitcher as he took a few slow steps toward first base. Brian McCann stepped between the Nationals' outfielder and his own pitcher and the benches and even the bullpens emptied out onto the field though nothing but heated words and glares were exchanged.
"Something he's got to do," Harper said when asked about the pitch after the loss. "It's a part of the game. And I guess it's something he's got to do."
Asked if he was surprised he got hit, the Nationals' 2010 no.1 overall pick said, "No."
"I hit that ball pretty far off him," Harper explained, "so no, not really."
He also said that he had no intention of charging the mound.
"I wasn't going to go out there," Harper continued, "I mean, 14.5 games down and I need to be in the lineup. So, he's got to do what he's got to do. If I walk off on somebody and he wants to drill me, let him drill me and I'll stand on first base and say some choice words and get over it."
As for McCann getting in his face, the former catcher said he'd do the same. "If I was McCann and I thought my pitcher was in danger, I'd jump in front of him and do the same thing he did, so it's just part of the game and it's something that they had to do."
"I asked [Joe] West," Davey Johnson told reporters after the game when asked if he thought it had been intentional on Teheran's part. "'If you feel he hit him intentionally, you can throw him out rather than put us under a warning,' and he said, 'Well it's marginal because it was downstairs.'" West issued a warning to both teams, but the Nationals didn't respond.
"I don't think Harper did [anything] when he hit the home run," Johnson said of Harper's 17th blast of 2013.
"That wasn't anything," he continued. "You know, it wasn't nothing. I don't know whether [Teheran] was trying to go inside or brush him back and hit him in the leg. I thought [Ryan Zimmerman] answered the thing right, almost hit one out of the ballpark. That's the way you answer that sort of thing and you file it for future reference. Nothing you can do at that time to level the playing field."
Zimmerman flew out to center, deep enough to allow Rendon to take third, but Jayson Werth popped up to short to end the bottom of the fifth after the Braves had taken a 2-1 lead over the Nationals on Evan Gattis' two-run single in the top of the inning. B.J. Upton singled and stole second in the top of the fifth and after Gonzalez walked Andrelton Simmons, Teheran bunted both runners into scoring position for Gattis, who only entered the game after Jason Heyward had a neck issue in his first at bat that later took him out.
Gonzalez ended up going seven innings, allowing six hits a walk and two runs while striking out five and throwing 96 pitches overall a start after a rough outing in Detroit in which he gave up 11 hits and 10 runs in 3 1/3 IP. "I thought he was outstanding," Davey Johnson said after the Nats' lefty fell to (7-5) overall on the year with the loss. As the Nationals' manager noted, however, Gonzalez's failed attempt at a bunt in the fifth hurt in the end. "The big thing," he said, "they bunted him over and we didn't. Those little things are big."
The Nationals threatened again in the seventh against Braves' lefty Luis Avilan. Avilan pitched around Jayson Werth with two runners on and walked the Nats' right fielder to load the bases and get to Adam LaRoche, then got a weak groundout out of the Nats' first baseman with a 2-0 fastball to strand three runners and leave the Nationals 0 for 5 with runners in scoring position on the night. "That's why he left him in there," Johnson said of Avilan. "He's had a good year -- to not give him a good pitch to hit and make him go after something. [LaRoche] had him in a favorable count."
LaRoche, Johnson said, was, "... just trying to make something happen. Base hit there, we win the ballgame."
They didn't get the hit and they lost by one run and fell another game behind the Braves in the division and ended the night 8.0 games out in the Wild Card Race.
"I never look too much about how many you're up or how many you're behind," the Nationals' manager said. "It's how you play every day. And we just need to play better. It's that simple."
• McCann Calls For A Fastball: (Images screencapped via MASN/MLB.com)
FBB's Top 5 Stories Of 2013
• August 17, 2013, Atlanta, Georgia - Strasburg Ejected: Did Nationals' Starter Stephen Strasburg Lose Control Against The Braves?:
The question before last night's game was a simple one: Would Stephen Strasburg hit one of the Atlanta Braves in retaliation for three pitches in the past two weeks that hit Washington Nationals' outfielder Bryce Harper? If Strasburg, the no.1 pick in '09, was going to stick up for the top pick in the 2010 draft, Davey Johnson explained before the game he'd be doing it on his own, not at the behest of the 70-year-old skipper. "I never order a pitcher to go after anybody," Johnson said, "but we have a way of protecting our own."
Johnson reiterated that he thought Julio Teheran's decision to hit Harper last week in D.C. with what everyone in Washington saw as a purpose pitch made little sense. The two HBPs the night before, in the first game of three for the Nats in Turner Field, didn't seem intentional to the skipper because the circumstances under which they occurred didn't seem ideally suited for sending a message to the Nationals' 20-year-old slugger. "It's either total ignorance or just being wild," Johnson said. "And I'm not sure which it is at this point."
But still, Teheran, starter Alex Wood and reliever Luis Avilan threw pitches that hit Harper in the hip, back and back of the left arm, the second on Friday hard enough in the left tricep that the outfielder took the night off on Saturday and sat and watched what transpired. The fact that Harper had to take a day off when the Nationals were fighting for every win didn't sit well with the defending NL East Champs or their manager. "I'm not happy with it and I know everybody in that room is not happy with it," Johnson told reporters.
Strasburg apparently thought a message had to be sent and he delivered it in the form of a 97 mph fastball to Braves' left fielder Justin Upton's backside. The Nationals took a 2-0 lead in the top of the first. Jason Heyward homered on a 3-2 heater in the first at bat of Atlanta's half of the inning and Strasburg hit Upton with a high 90's fastball that left no question about his intentions. Upton gave a little look out towards the mound as he took his base. Home plate umpire Marvin Hudson issued warnings and things had seemingly been settled between the divisional rivals.
Strasburg got out of the first without further damage and the Nationals added two more runs on Braves' starter Mike Minor in the top of the second and that's when things got weird. After a long 41-pitch inning in which Minor was knocked out of the game, Strasburg retook the mound in Turner Field and threw four straight balls to Jordan Schafer, walking the leadoff hitter. The first pitch the Nats' starter threw to the next batter, Andrelton Simmons, was a curve ball outside that was nowhere near a strike. It earned the Nats' pitcher a visit from Pitching Coach Steve McCatty. The next two pitches went behind the Braves' shortstop and hit the backstop hard, allowing Schafer to take second and then third. The second of the two wild pitches got Strasburg and manager Davey Johnson tossed.
Strasburg didn't argue against the ejection, walking off the field and into the third base dugout. Davey Johnson argued, but had no case, really. Johnson, as quoted by reporters, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Carroll Rogers, expressed concern with what he saw from Strasburg in the second and asked if anything was wrong when he joined Strasburg in the clubhouse:
"'When I came in the first thing I said to Stras (was), ‘Are you hurt? Is something wrong with you?,’ said Nationals manager Davey Johnson, who also got ejected since both dugouts had been warned. 'He said ‘No, I’m just a little out of sorts.’"
• via Twitter:
#Braves Minor on Strasburg/Simmons: "Everything was a little off. He kind of just walked off, didn’t look like he was really there."— Amanda Comak (@acomak) August 18, 2013
Strasburg blamed the long top of the second, saying he lost his command after sitting. "Just the long inning right before there," the right-hander told reporters. "I just got a little cold and I [was] just missing spots." Asked if it was mechanics or something else, Strasburg said, "I can't really explain it. Just didn't really feel good out there and couldn't hit the spot."
But he said he understood the ejection. "Sure, yeah, it makes sense," the Nats' starter said. As for the HBP on Upton? "I'm not going to get into that," Strasburg responded when asked.
The two pitches behind the Braves' shortstop left Marvin Hudson with no choice as Nats' Bench Coach Randy Knorr explained when he talked to reporters after what ended up being a marathon fifteen inning affair. "I think a lot of stuff was building up," Knorr told reporters. "I don't know why he would try to hit Simmons. I don't think so. I think he was trying to go inside. And he just threw one behind him. And I think the umpire thought the same thing and then the next one behind him too and [Hudson] can't let that happen. Simmons beat us the other way quite a bit, so he was trying to go in."
"I think it was, 'I'm going to go in and if I go in and hit him, I hit him,'" Knorr said, speculating on Strasburg's thought process. "I don't think the intent was to go in and hit him at that time. I think if he was going to miss, he was going to miss inside and so that's what he did."
There was little doubt in Knorr's mind about Strasburg's intentions when it came to the HBP on Justin Upton.
"They hit Harper quite a bit," the bench coach said, "I don't know if somebody said something. Or he just decided to do it on his own. If he decided to do it on his own, I'm proud of him."
So the Braves took some liberties, at least in the Nationals' minds. The Nats responded, with their top starter hitting the Braves' left fielder after they'd hit the Nationals' left fielder. That's it, right? "I think it should be over," Knorr said, before offering his thoughts on why things escalated to the point they did on Saturday night.
"I think if they would just let it play out and let the guys do what they're going to do instead of throwing warnings up there... I think when you throw a warning up there, it just prolongs it, so it doesn't happen that day because you can't lose players and the manager don't want to leave, so next time you see them... those guys are going to do what they want to do out there. You can't control them all the time."
After a few weeks, four HBPs, some words and a near brawl, the players apparently settled it on the field.
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- Nationals Top 5 Stories Of 2013: Branch Rickey On Davey Johnson
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