The Nationals’ Five Greatest Games
October 11, 1981: First and Only
Over 36 years of business based in Canada before moving onto Washington, the Montreal Expos made the postseason only once, in 1981—and under normal circumstances they wouldn’t have qualified, as the midseason players’ strike encouraged owners worried over fan defection to expand the playoff format and allow, for the first time, eight teams to survive past the regular season. The Expos finished second overall in the National League’s Eastern Division, but because they had the division’s best record in the season’s second half—after the strike ended—they were paired up with first-half winner Philadelphia to determine the official divisional champion.
The Expos won the first two games of the series with the Phillies but were sent down to defeat in the next two—setting up a winner-take-all Game Five at Philadelphia. The Expos had their ace, Steve Rogers, ready—but the Phillies had theirs ready as well in future Hall of Famer Steve Carlton. Through the first four innings, no one tallied as the expected pitcher’s duel evolved, even as Rogers evaded a few rallies—especially in the fourth when Gary Matthews was thrown out at home trying to break the ice for the Phillies. In the Montreal fifth, the Expos quickly—and successfully—countered, as they loaded the bases with one out when Rogers himself brought in the game’s first two runs on a single to center. The Expos added a third run an inning later as Larry Parrish doubled in Andre Dawson.
The Phillies tried in vain to scratch back at the Expos; Rogers survived one jam in the sixth by inducing an inning-ending double play ball by NL MVP Mike Schmidt, left single runners on base in the seventh and eighth, and finished the shutout in the ninth as the Phillies lined loudly into the final three outs.
Rogers’ six-hit blanking gave the Expos their lone postseason triumph; moving onto the NLCS, Montreal lost a heartbreaking five-game series to Los Angeles in which Rick Monday’s tie-breaking homer in the ninth inning of Game Five—off Rogers—eliminated the Expos.
June 8, 2010: A Merry Strasmus to All
Few number one picks in the history of baseball generated as much buzz as Stephen Strasburg, the tall strong-armed pitcher from San Diego State with a fastball once clocked at 103 MPH and selected by the woebegone Nationals to start the 2009 draft. Fans in the Nation’s Capitol eagerly awaited his arrival at the big league level, and after he started the 2010 season in the minors winning seven of nine decisions with a 1.30 earned run average and a outrageously low 0.79 WHIP (walks and hits allowed per inning), they would get their chance on a pleasant D.C. evening before 40,000 fans—with, unusually enough for the Nationals, very few if any no-shows.
Strasburg’s opponents on the evening were the bottom-rung Pittsburgh Pirates, not exactly the most difficult assignment—but certainly more challenging than, say, the University of Wyoming. The 21-year old, mixing fastballs recorded at 100 MPH with sharp-breaking curves, went through the order the first time through, allowing one hit and striking out six. In the fourth, the Pirates looked ready to prove that Strasburg’s second ride through wouldn’t be so sweet, as often happens to first-time major league throwers, scoring two runs on a Delwyn Young home run. But Strasburg would not buckle under; rather, he regrouped and strengthened— retiring the side with two strikeouts in the fifth, striking out the side on just 11 pitches in the sixth, and doing it again in the seventh on 13 throws—the last, against Andy LaRoche, timed at 99.
With a 4-2 lead and 95 pitches delivered, Strasburg was told to call it a day. His line was sensational: Seven innings, two runs allowed on four hits, 14 strikeouts—and no walks. The strikeout total was the most by a Washington pitcher since the team’s move from Montreal five years earlier; it matched the highest total thrown in the majors for the year to date; and it fell one shy of the record for a major league debut. After the 5-2 win, Strasburg would make 11 more starts for the year before seriously damaging his elbow, leading to Tommy John surgery and one full year of rehab.
April 17, 1969: The Stoneman Age
In just the ninth game of their existence, the Expos manage to accomplish something a handful teams haven’t been able to do for up to 50 years: Throw a no-hitter.
The setting was Philadelphia’s Connie Mack Stadium, the victims were the Phillies and the aggressor was Bill Stoneman, who entered the game hardly a candidate to fire such a gem. This was only his third season, and his fifth major league start; in his first two outings of the new year with the new team, he allowed 11 runs (five earned) over nine innings. When he walked the first batter he faced on the evening, the heads must have already begun shaking in the Montreal dugout. But then he retired the next ten batters, and despite walking three more Phillies in the middle innings, he still hadn’t allowed a hit and the doubting amongst the coaches began to quickly fade.
As the suspense began to build over whether Stoneman would actually throw a no-hitter, there was none to be afforded on the scoreboard, as the Expos gradually built up a lead thanks to Rusty Staub’s three doubles and a homer. In the ninth, Stoneman completed the no-no, nearly fainting when Deron Johnson, the final batter, laced a hard grounder that nearly knocked down Maury Wills at short, but the out was completed and the 25-year-old right-hander became the toast of Montreal, with 300 fans coming out to the airport in the middle of the night to welcome him home while the Expos instantly gave him a raise. He rewarded the team and fans three years later with a second no-hitter.
August 23, 1989: The Strangest Game
That any major league baseball was played in a stadium with a domed covering akin to scuba gear, with meters instead of feet listed on the outfield walls, and with fans speaking mostly French, was offbeat enough. Throw in one of the most bizarre games ever played on a late summer evening at Stade Olympique, and the atmosphere must have been dripping with pure enigmatic appeal.
A crowd of nearly 22,000 sat down for the first pitch between the Expos and the Dodgers in Montreal; five hours, 14 minutes, 22 innings, one run (with another overturned), 33 hits and the ejection of a mascot later, the game came to a merciful but unsuccessful conclusion for the Expos.
Pascual Perez got the start on the hill for Montreal against reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Orel Hershiser, and they dueled scoreless into the eighth inning; the bullpen picked it up from there and kept it 0-0 well into overtime. The tension already got to Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda by the 13th, complaining that Expos mascot Youppi—a bizarre blend of the Philly Phanatic, a Hanna Barbera cartoon character and Rusty Staub—was causing too much distraction above the Dodger dugout; the umpires replied by ejecting Youppi from the game, the first such recorded ouster in baseball history. Three innings later, Larry Fitzgerald thought he had the game wrapped up for the Expos when he flied out to right with one out and the bases loaded, scoring Larry Walker from third—but while two of the four umpires hastily headed for the locker room, the other two hung out and heeded the appeal of the Dodgers, who said Walker left too early; they concurred and fetched their two colleagues back out on the field to continue play.
Rick Dempsey finally broke the ice in the top of the 22nd inning and made it feel like Rick Monday all over again for the few hundred left in the stands when he lifted a leadoff homer over the fence off Dennis Martinez, pitching his second inning of emergency relief. Hoping to get even or better in the bottom of the frame, the Expos found two-out life from Rex Hudler’s single—but Hudler was tagged out trying to steal his way into scoring position, ending the game. The marathon was the longest in Expos history and the longest scoreless duel since 1968; the consolation prize for Montreal was that they didn’t issue a single walk to a Dodger batter, matching a major league record for the most innings in a game without one.
July 26, 1991: El Perfecto por El Presidente
Two years after the strangefest in Montreal, the Expos and Dodgers reconvened in Los Angeles for another strange series of events capped by the greatest pitching performance in Montreal-Washington franchise history.
The three-game series began with Montreal starter Mark Gardner no-hitting the Dodgers—through nine innings. The scoreless game went into the tenth, but Gardner quickly lost the no-hit bid when Lenny Harris singled and lost the game when Darryl Strawberry brought Harris home two batters later. After getting thumped the next day, 7-0, the Expos attempted to salvage the series by sending the rejuvenated Dennis Martinez to the mound. El Presidente, as Martinez was known back in his native Nicaragua, did Gardner one better by retiring all 27 batters he faced, not allowing anyone to reach base; better yet, he had support from both his offense and Dodger shortstop Alfredo Griffin, whose two errors abetted a two-run Montreal rally in the seventh.
Martinez’s closest brush with danger came in the fourth when he got rattled on a sharp comebacker from Brett Butler; he was dominant throughout, not allowing a ball to get past the infield until the end of the fifth on a fly out and inducing 17 ground outs overall. When it ended, he had thrown the fourth perfect game in modern NL history and made his catcher, Ron Hassey, the first to field perfectos in different leagues.
Washington Nationals Team History: Year-by year records, statistics and an oral history of the Nationals, decade by decade.
The Nationals' Five Greatest Hitters: A list of the five greatest hitters based on their productivity and efficiency.
The Nationals' Five Greatest Pitchers: A list of the five greatest pitchers based on their productivity and efficiency.
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