Wilson Ramos crossed home plate, pointing his fingers to the sky and then to the stands. He smiled. His 15th home run of the season bounced around in the Red Porch seats in center field as he made his way into the Washington Nationals’ dugout and was swarmed by teammates.
In the 23rd consecutive game Ramos had started — the longest stretch for any catcher in the majors this season — he soaked in the moment.
“He’s hard to take out of the lineup,” said manager Davey Johnson. “We’ve missed him for two years.”
Ramos was the unquestioned star in a game filled with them — Bryce Harper was 3-for-5, Ian Desmond was 2-for-4 with three RBI, and Denard Span went 2-for-5 to extend his hitting streak to 26 games — as the Nationals sealed an 11-2 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies on a sunsplashed afternoon at Nationals Park.
But the full value of what the Nationals had done wasn’t felt until almost an hour later, when from within the various corners of the home clubhouse they roared while watching the Milwaukee Brewers complete a furious comeback and walk-off against the Cincinnati Reds.
“Get up! Get up!” came one voice from a largely empty clubhouse as the players scattered to various unseen corners to watch the finish to the Reds game and Sean Halton’s game-winning home run took flight. “Yeah!”
Their playoff hopes hinge now not only on their own performance, which has been exceptional of late with 25 wins in their last 35 games, but on that of the Reds. They cannot get in without help, but they also must continue to win.
“The only thing we can control right now is us winning,” said Jordan Zimmermann, who tossed seven innings and allowed two runs to earn his 18th victory of the season. “But I’ll trade all those [personal] wins in for a spot in the playoffs.”
If the Nationals’ last push for the postseason falls short, one of their biggest unanswered questions will be how much of an impact Ramos may have made had he been healthy all season. After missing most of the 2012 season with a torn ACL and meniscus, Ramos missed 58 of the Nationals’ first 84 games this season with a twice-strained left hamstring.
He’s hit .294 with 13 home runs and 49 RBI since returning.
“I believe in what I can do,” said Ramos. “I know I had two injuries and I lost 2 1/2 months. But I know if I stay healthy all year I can do a better job than what I’m doing right now. The season is not over yet.”
The coaching staff has pushed Johnson to give him a day off during this stretch. Bench coach Randy Knorr, a former major league catcher himself, frets about the 26-year-old’s twice-strained left hamstring. Ramos ices it after games and wraps it during them. He runs methodically to first base on the advice of the coaches.
But his play rarely indicates any strain this stretch is taking on him. Sunday morning, as he reclined in a folding chair in front of his locker, Ramos smiled when asked about his 23rd straight start. “I’m excited,” he said. “Because after today, I may rest.”
Then he played as if it was the first game of this string, going 4-for-4 with five RBI — including three singles and the homer. With his 15th home run of the year he broke his own Nationals record for home runs as a catcher and improved upon his totals for the entire 2011 season. As he soaked in the final out from the dugout, Ramos thought about what he had accomplished on this day.
It was, he figured, the best day he’s ever had in the major leagues.
“All through this, he’s been hitting the heck out of the ball,” Johnson said. “Catching good, throwing people out. … He’s strong like a bull. He shakes my hand every day before the game. It’s the last person I touch before a game and I feel like I got a meat-grinder on me. But he’s fun to watch. Quality at-bats. And today was an unbelievably good day.”
The streak has represented something more for Ramos, though: a chance, quite simply, to prove he could do it.
“Coming from the knee surgery, this is a good test for my knee — for myself — to show everybody I can play everyday, I can play a lot of games,” Ramos said.
“There’s no question [he’s proven it],” Johnson said. “You can get labeled as injury prone. And for him to come back and catch as good and as often as he has, just proves his point. He’s durable.”
The Nationals will welcome the Atlanta Braves to Nationals Park for three games beginning Monday, the end of a 19-game stretch against losing teams in which they went 14-5. The Reds will visit Houston to play the MLB-worst Astros. Maybe, Johnson said, when the Braves series is over, Ramos will get a day off.
“We’re in the race for the wild card and I want to keep helping the team to win games,” Ramos said. “I lost, last year, the opportunity to play in the playoffs because I had knee surgery and this year I want to help the team to make the playoffs and enjoy that moment.”