- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 2, 2013

At 1:09 p.m. Monday, Stephen Strasburg threw the first pitch of the Washington Nationals 2013 season.

The best thing about that pitch wasn’t that it was a strike, or that it signaled the start of a much-anticipated season for the locals. The best thing was it landed with a sweet thud in the mitt of Wilson Ramos.

Strasburg and fellow No. 1-overall draft pick Bryce Harper were the unquestioned stars of the day. Strasburg threw seven efficient innings, retiring 19 in a row at one point. Harper hit a home run in his first at-bat. He hit a home run in his second at-bat. Those were the only runs for either team.

While his day didn’t stand out for such awesomeness, Ramos‘ appearance behind the plate was special for a different reason — the mere fact that he was there and playing.

“This is what I have been working for, to be ready for Opening Day,” Ramos said.

If ever there’s a person who could use some good fortune, it is Ramos. Saying he had a difficult stretch doesn’t do justice to what the young Venezuelan went through.

On Nov. 9, 2011, he was kidnapped in front of his home. Fortunately, he was rescued two days later. Such an experience is harrowing and full of fear for the victim and family.

Six months and a day after being rescued, Ramos tore up his right knee in a game at Cincinnati. His 2012 season was finished. Catching is a position that puts a ton of strain on the knees. Being ready to start 2013 was not a certainty.

Yet there he was, catching nine innings and contributing a base hit to a Nats offense that was pretty comatose other than Harper’s blasts.

“I feel great,” said Ramos, 25, his repaired knee covered with an ice pack. “Nothing hurts, no issues.”

Manager Davey Johnson’s decision to start Ramos in the opener as what he called a “carrot” for Ramos‘ hard work was a terrific gesture. No disrespect to Kurt Suzuki, who showed his mettle as a No. 1 catcher after the Nats acquired him from Oakland last August. The two will rotate, Johnson said. We’ll see how that plays out as the season progresses.

But there is no mistaking Ramos‘ importance to the Nationals’ future.

He didn’t arrive with the fanfare of Strasburg and Harper. The Nats acquired him from the Twins organization in 2010 in a trade-deadline deal for relief pitcher Matt Capps. Ramos was seen as one of the top catching prospects in baseball and soon showed why.

During his rookie season of 2011, he hit .267 and belted 15 home runs. He was hitting .265 last season when disaster struck in Cincinnati.

In a season that didn’t have many downers, seeing him helped off the field was a very sad moment.

When would the Nats see him again? Was Opening Day 2013 realistic?

“With medicine and stuff nowadays, you never doubt anything,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “Being a catcher, the demands of the position, it is tough to think yes or no. But knowing Wilson, the type of person he is, seeing how hard he worked, it doesn’t surprise anyone.”

It did actually surprise one person: Ramos. While Opening Day was his goal, he’s honest enough to admit there were times during his offseason rehabilitation that he didn’t think it would happen. He had no real way to measure his progress in baseball terms. The knee hurt sometimes more than he would have figured. Was it soreness from the rehab work, or was there a problem?

Ramos showed up in Viera, Fla., in early February for spring training. He strapped on his gear. He squatted and caught a bullpen session with pitcher Zach Duke. Pretty much at that moment, he knew. He could do this. He could catch on Opening Day.

“I wasn’t scared to block the ball, I felt nothing in my knee,” he said. “After that first one, I felt great. It cleared my mind a little bit.”

Ramos went on to enjoy a strong spring, hitting .333 with two home runs in 14 exhibition games. He definitely earned that “carrot” from his manager.

After the opener, you could barely see Strasburg in the clubhouse behind a horde of cameras and microphones. You couldn’t miss the megawatt grin on Ramos‘ face. The icepack on his knee was big. The smile was bigger.

“I was waiting for this moment,” he said, “for a long time.”

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