Little did anyone in the Nationals organization know, when they flew into Seattle for a three game series in June 2008, what was on the line. That inter-league series could end up being decisive losses and/or wins in a contest that would come down to the wire with a franchise changing prize at stake in the end between two teams who would later have the two worst records in baseball that year.
The Nats had finished 73-89 the year before, two games ahead of the last place Marlins in the NL East. The Mariners, however, had looked pretty good in 2007, and as late as August were within just two games of the Angels for first in the AL West, before a nine-game losing streak knocked them out of contention. But, still, they finished second, and with a few acquisitions were looking to make a run in 2008. They traded George Sherrill, Adam Jones and Chris Tillman to the Orioles for Erik Bedard (which proved to be a disastrous trade on many levels, not the least of which, in the short run, Bedard had shoulder problems and was done for the season in early July). Jose Vidro, a Mariner at the time, suddenly became too old to play, hitting 80 points lower than the year before, and he was cut before the end of the season. Signing a washed-up Brad Wilkerson did nothing for the Mariners (he was also cut during the year). The Mariners played .500 ball for most of April, but played terribly after that.
By the time the Nats, losers of 10 of their previous 12, rolled in for that three game series in June, Seattle had the worst record in baseball, and writers were wondering if they would be the first team in baseball history with a $100 million payroll to lose 100 games (a feat they actually did accomplish by the end of the season). The Nats swept the three game series, following which Seattle fired their GM, Bill Bavasi. Seattle’s homestand lasted one more series: they lost two of three to the Marlins, at which point Manager John McLaren was also fired, to be replaced on an interim basis by his bench coach.
Fast forward to September 18. At this point, a college pitcher at San Diego State named Stephen Strasburg had been wowing scouts – accomplishing feats such as striking out 23 in a game, and becoming the only collegiate player selected to the 2008 US Olympic baseball team, managed by Davey Johnson. Fans and writers were talking about the Strasburg Sweepstakes – that is: the “race” to finish with the worst record in the Majors, which would be rewarded with the #1 draft pick.
Seattle was 57-95, while the Nats and the Padres were both 58-95. Frankly, it seemed like poetic justice for Strasburg to end up with the Padres. After all, he was born in San Diego, went to high school and college there, and his college coach was Tony Gwynn. The San Diego Union-Tribune noted the situation in a story called “When Worst Means First: Just call it the ‘Strasburg Sweepstakes,’”: The paper wrote: “The Strasburg Sweepstakes opens Friday…, when the National League’s two worst teams, the Padres and Nationals (both 58-95), meet at Nationals Park.”
And now with that build-up, the Padres were headed to Washington, D.C. for a 3-game weekend series on the second to last weekend of the regular season in 2008.
The three games had their ugly moments. Chico Harlan, in the Washington Post, led off his article on the first game of the series with:
“The battle for sole possession of 16th place in the National League already had an absurdist subplot before five hours of sloppy but mulish baseball locked the San Diego Padres and Washington Nationals into a near stalemate. Indeed, two of the worst teams in baseball couldn’t decide who was worse.”
Harlan wasn’t exaggerating. In the first game, San Diego scored the go-ahead run in the top of the 14th when right fielder Elijah Dukes trotted a few feet shy of the outfield wall, thinking he was about to watch a home run sail above his head. The ball hit the wall for a triple, which started a 5-run rally, all of them scored off of the Nats’ ninth pitcher of the game, Levale Speigner. The five-hour game had over 500 pitches thrown.
In the second game, the Nats got only four hits and committed two errors to allow four unearned runs in a 6-1 loss. For the finale, the Padres were up 2-0 after just four batters and cruised to a 6-2 win for the three game sweep. (I don’t mean to pick on Elijah Dukes, because there was plenty of ineptitude all around, but the Padres’ sixth run was scored on a sac fly which Dukes caught thinking it was the third out – and so he never made the throw home.) One week of the regular season remained.
The sweep, more or less, took the Padres out of contention for the #1 pick, while on the other side of the county, the Mariners were also swept in a three game series at Oakland – for Seattle it was their eleventh straight loss. Fans for both the Mariners and the Nats were excited. The following day, after yet another Mariner loss, the Seattle Times Mariners blog lead article was entitled “Some Good News in 12th Straight Loss,” referring to “the Strasburg Standings.” I have no idea how the front offices felt – after all, no draft choice is a lock, and each year there are a number of non #1 first-round all stars in the draft (AJ Pollack was #17 and Mike Trout was #25 during that draft class) — but the players and coaches were certainly trying to win. Nats Manager Manny Acta noted to the press that he wanted to avoid the ignominy of finishing last or of losing 100 games.
During the last week of the season, Seattle lost three of four to the Angels, while the Nats split two games with Miami (one game was rained out). And so going into the final weekend of the season, the Nats, with a 59-99 record, traveled to Philadelphia for three, while Seattle, carrying a 58-101 record (and losers of 14 of their last 15) hosted the Oakland A’s, the team that had just swept them the previous weekend. At this point, the Nats “magic number” was two: a single win combined with a single Seattle loss over the weekend would give Seattle the #1 pick. It was almost impossible odds, given just how poorly the Mariners were playing. The Nats were facing the first place Phillies, who were still in a divisional race with the Mets, so losses were likely there – but the Nats would need help in the form of some wins from the hapless Mariners.
Incredibly, unbelievably, and jaw-droppingly, the Mariners won their first two games, while, not terribly unsurprisingly, the Phillies beat the Nats in their first two games, clinching the division. On the last day of the season, the Nats still “needed” either their own loss or a Mariner win to finish last in MLB. The Phils, since they had clinched, started eight bench players. Would that end up deciding the draft choice? In any event, the Phils took a 4-3 lead in the fourth on hits by So Taguchi and Eric Bruntlett knocking starter Odalis Perez out of the game. The Phils shut the door in the 8th, on consecutive home runs by catcher Lars Marson (making his MLB debut) and Matt Stairs off Nats’ reliever Marco Estrada. The Nats finished at 59-102. In the meantime, the Mariners completed a sweep of the A’s for Seattle’s only home sweep of the year, finishing at 61-101.
Wow. Did that actually just happen? A last weekend rally by Seattle combined with a miracle meltdown of the Nats in the last two weeks of the season to produce a silver, or gold, lining? Acta and the players had to endure seeing the Phillies clinch in Philly, and suffer the indignity of having the worst record in baseball, but some fans, and I was among them, with nothing else to hope for, dreamed of a pitching savior from San Diego and were thrilled.
All told, Seattle – after their 12 game losing streak — won four of their last six; the Padres (guided by Manager Bud Black) won five of their last nine, all while the Nationals lost nine of their last ten games, to eke out a dramatic “come from ahead” win in “The Strasburg Sweepstakes.”
My oh my how that changed the course of baseball history.
The Nationals of course, went on to pick Strasburg at #1 in the 2009 amateur draft. The Mariners chose Dustin Ackley at #2 – who only had one good year, his rookie season in 2011 when he batted .273. He fared much better, however, than the Padres’ #3 pick: Donovan Tate, who never even made it out of A-ball. (Both Ackley and Tate were consensus top 10 picks, so neither the Mariners nor the Padres could be faulted too much).
Oh, and by the way, that bench-coach turned interim manager for the Mariners who helped guide them to the just-barely second worst record in baseball? That interim manager who, somehow, got his team fired up, or at least focused enough to sweep the A’s on that last weekend? That was Montgomery County, Maryland’s own Jim Riggleman who then became the Nationals 2009 bench coach, and soon after, as we know, replaced Manny Acta that same year when Acta was fired in mid-season in 2009.
Riggleman went on to manage Strasburg when he first came up for the Nats (Strasmas!). When Riggleman quit mid-season in 2011, it was McLaren, his bench coach who took over for three games until the Nats hired Davey Johnson. Yes, that would be the same McLaren who Riggleman, as bench coach, succeeded in Seattle.
And now, eight years later, Stephen Strasburg finally came to San Diego wearing the Padres retro colors during batting practice and the Home Run Derby: as a Washington Nationals All Star.