MILWAUKEE | It seems hard to believe just three months ago Josh Willingham was a sporadically used corner outfielder hitting .129 and fighting for playing time. His competition is now on the Washington Nationals’ bench or in the minors because Willingham’s torrid bat has made them auxiliary pieces.
The 30-year-old has gone from a scuffling reserve to one of the cornerstones of an offense that is looking too potent to belong to a last-place team. The Nationals moved Willingham to right field - a spot he had never played in the majors - planted him in the middle of their lineup and started fielding phone calls about his availability.
It’s all because Willingham has, in very short order, become the kind of offensive presence the Nationals can’t hide. The slice of baseball history Willingham carved out in a 14-6 win against the Milwaukee Brewers on Monday night was merely the climax of a three-month crescendo that might have done no less than change his future with the team.
With two outs and the bases loaded in a tie game in the fifth inning, Willingham faced Jeff Suppan, his first two at-bats indexed in his mind. He had doubled on a slider in the second inning, which sent Suppan to his sinker on Willingham’s ground out in the fourth inning.
The former biology major, ever the pensive hitter, knew the probabilities were tilted toward another fastball in the fifth. He got it on the first pitch and launched it into the Brewers’ bullpen for a grand slam, putting the Nationals up 6-2.
Then, facing Mark DiFelice an inning later, with the bases again loaded and one out, Willingham did it again. He crushed a fastball on the outer half of the plate to left center for his second grand slam, turning a slugfest into a romp.
He became the sixth player in major league history to hit grand slams in back-to-back innings - Fernando Tatis hit two in one inning with the Cardinals in 1999 - and just the 13th to hit two in one game. In other words, Willingham’s feat was rarer than the perfect game the White Sox’s Mark Buehrle threw last week.
“It’s something that, when I was coming up to the plate the second time [with the bases loaded], I knew I had a chance to do it,” Willingham said, the ball from the second slam tagged and placed in a glass case in his locker. “When I look back on it, it’ll be very special, and I’ll never forget it.”
It would have been one thing if the virtuoso performance were an isolated incident. But the tear Willingham has been on the past three months has been something else: It is a statement that he can be a cornerstone of the team’s future.
“You really can’t look back on it,” interim manager Jim Riggleman said. “I think everything was done with a good purpose. When Josh got the opportunity, he took advantage of it.”
In 61 games and 52 starts since the beginning of May, Willingham is hitting .326 with 15 homers and 37 RBI. He finished Monday night with three hits (the other being a second-inning double), two homers and eight RBI.
He has done it while providing serviceable defense at a new position, and Monday night he helped fuel an offense that looks to be regaining some of its spring swagger.
The 14 runs the Nationals scored were their most since coming to the District, passing the 13 they scored Saturday and July 11 in Houston. The victory gave Washington its third straight win and its fifth in seven games.
When it started, the game didn’t look like it would end like such a resounding success. It looked like rookie Craig Stammen fighting to stay afloat against an aggressive Brewers lineup.
He gave up two runs on five hits in the first three innings, all while the Nationals put leadoff men on base and squandered scoring opportunities, then allowed a three-run homer from Ryan Braun in the fifth that pulled Milwaukee within a run. Stammen left after just 4 2/3 innings, having threatened to negate the six-run volley Washington put together in the fifth.
But the Nationals surpassed the surge by a run in the sixth, aided by a fluky sacrifice bunt from relief pitcher Jason Bergmann. With Alberto Gonzalez on first and no outs, Bergmann chopped a bunt into the dirt in front of home plate and up into the glove of catcher Jason Kendall.
Rather than throwing to second - and getting a force on Gonzalez and starting a double play - Kendall instinctively tagged Bergmann and then threw to second. Only because he had already tagged Bergmann, there was no force play at second, and J.J. Hardy never applied a tag.
The gaffe left a runner on second, and Gonzalez would score when Cristian Guzman doubled two batters later. It was the kind of mental lockdown the Nationals have been paying for all season. On Monday night, it sustained an inning that culminated in Willingham’s second grand slam.
Ryan Zimmerman blasted a solo homer in the eighth inning, his 18th of the year and the fifth homer of a wild game in a stuffy stadium with its retractable roof closed. But that only salted the gashes Willingham had put in a shaky Brewers pitching staff with his bat.
“Oftentimes, you don’t see the bases loaded twice for the same guy in the same game - much less a guy hitting two grand slams,” outfielder Adam Dunn said. “That’s pretty amazing.”