- The Washington Times - Friday, August 3, 2007

They wore white hats, circa 1927, in honor of the greatest pitcher to call the District home. They spent the entire evening paying tribute to a man hardly anyone in the crowd of 26,223 at RFK Stadium had a chance to see in person.

Walter Johnson probably would have scoffed at all the hubbub over the 100th anniversary of his debut with the Senators. “The Big Train” would have been far more interested in the ballgame playing out before his eyes, and in that respect, perhaps the Nationals’ greatest tribute to Johnson last night was their convincing 7-3 win over the Cincinnati Reds.

With another well-rounded effort, Washington capped a three-game sweep of the Reds and continued to play the kind of competitive baseball that has defined this club for nearly three months.

“We’re happy with what we have, and we’re happy with the way we’ve been playing,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.

Since slogging their way through an unsightly 9-25 start to the season, the Nationals have turned their fortunes around. They are 39-35 since May 11, and for the first time this season, they are on pace to lose only 90 games.

Sure, few other major league squads would consider that a benchmark for success. But for a club that has been prepared from Day 1 of spring training to lose 100 or more games, this extended stretch of winning baseball has been heartily enjoyable.

“This is the growth of our team,” first baseman Dmitri Young said. “They called it rebuilding, not giving us much of a chance. But we never listened to those. We listened to our manager, and he believed that we had a chance. He’s behind us 100 percent, and that gives us the strength to go out there and play.”

Manny Acta understands the potential his young club has to establish itself in the District, and he also understands how important it is for the Nationals to give a nod to the rich history of baseball in this town.

Few spectators last night were more touched by the Johnson tribute than Washington’s first-year manager, who caught the ceremonial first pitch from the Hall of Fame hurler’s grandson, Henry Thomas. Thomas and his mother, Carolyn Johnson Thomas, were presented with a placard bearing the legendary right-hander’s name that will hang at the Nationals’ new ballpark next season.

More impressive to Acta, though, were the between-innings video tributes that highlighted some of Johnson’s career achievements: 417 wins, a 2.17 ERA, 531 complete games.

“[Hitting coach Lenny Harris] is screaming in my ears: ‘We don’t have one complete game yet! This guy had 500!’ ” Acta said. “He couldn’t believe every one of those achievements that he did. Those are some of the records that will never, never, ever be broken.”

What Johnson would have thought of the actual pitching performances in last night’s game is uncertain. By today’s standards, Mike Bacsik’s seven-inning, three-run start was impressive. In 1907, that wouldn’t have cut it.

But if nothing else, Johnson would have appreciated the way Bacsik (5-6) shook off some early mistakes to earn his third straight win.

That didn’t look likely to happen following a harrowing second inning in which the left-hander served up a solo homer to Adam Dunn and a two-run shot to Alex Gonzalez that put Washington in a 3-1 hole.

Turns out those were Bacsik’s only mistakes of the night. He responded by retiring 11 straight Reds and did not allow another hit. Pulled by Acta after the seventh despite a pitch count of only 81, he struck out six and walked none.

With that, the journeyman pitcher added another improbable chapter to his first season with the Nationals. An afterthought for much of the last two months, he’s now 3-0 with a 2.05 ERA in his last four starts.

“This guy is very mature, very professional,” Acta said. “He really appreciates getting this opportunity over here after being released last year, and he’s making the most out of it. If you look around, there are a lot of lefties just like him who have made a career out of throwing strikes and changing speeds on guys.”

Bacsik’s cause last night was helped by a Washington lineup that again had its way with Cincinnati’s pitching staff. These two teams played seven times this season — four games at Great American Ball Park in May, three more at RFK this week. The Nationals, who have scored the fewest runs in the majors this year, scored an average of 7.3 runs in those games.

The two biggest hits last night came from Zimmerman, who doubled in a run in the third off rookie left-hander Phil Dumatrait and then drilled a two-run single off reliever Todd Coffey in the fourth to cap a 3-for-5 performance.

By night’s end, the Washington ballclub gathered in the middle of the diamond to celebrate another win. Somewhere, Walter Johnson was smiling.

As Bacsik put it: “It was an honor getting to wear the hat that he got to wear.”

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide