10 Critical Moments That Transformed Washington Nationals Baseball

Will Grooms@w_grooms94Correspondent IFebruary 1, 2014

10 Critical Moments That Transformed Washington Nationals Baseball

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    With nearly a decade gone since the Montreal Expos relocated and granted D.C. and its metropolitan area residents the gift of a professional baseball team for the third time in Major League Baseball history, the Washington Nationals have long-buried the ineptitude of their geographical predecessors.

    From the "First in war, first in peace, last in the American League" slogan lovingly placed upon the Washington Senators by their fans, to the maladroitness that embodied the last-place Nationals teams in four of their first five seasons, Washington baseball has come a long way and no longer has the mindset of succumbing to mediocrity.

    The list to follow will discuss the critical moments and decisions that transformed Washington baseball from a laughing stock into a serious contender. 

Ryan Zimmerman's Walk-Off Home Run Against the New York Yankees in 2006

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    As a brand new MLB franchise, the Nationals were bound to take their lumps. One shining moment, however, gave fans hope for the future on a special Father's Day in 2006.

    The 45,157 people in attendance would see Washington take on the New York Yankees. Trailing 2-1, Ryan Zimmerman became a household name among the Washington faithful, blasting a two-run home run to beat the 2006 American League East champions.

    On a team where inconsistent play was a trademark, Zimmerman solidified, with this moment, that he was the franchise player and that he was here to stay.

The Appointing of Stan Kasten and Mike Rizzo

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    The hiring of Stan Kasten and Mike Rizzo as the Nationals president and vice president, respectively, gave way to "The Plan."

    Orchestrated by Kasten, it was a plan to re-engineer the Washington Nationals, going from the ground up. 

    A standard and common-sense tactic, the principles of the plan were to build through the farm system, trade for young talent and add free agents in a cost-effective way.

    This approach has led to the acquisitions of players like Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche, the bubbling up of players like Ian Desmond and trading for efficient young players like Wilson Ramos and Denard Span. 

Moving from RFK to Nationals Park

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    In three years at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, the Nationals posted a combined record of 225-261. 

    Playing in the old stadium that the Washington Senators used to play in, the Nats were subject to little fan support, poor location and limited technological savvy.

    The downsizing actually helped fan support. Seating 4,000 less people than RFK Memorial Stadium, Nationals Park better facilitated an environment for fans to interact and become one as a fanbase.

    The flashy new Nationals Park got players more excited to play, and began with a single moment that transformed the Washington Nationals, as explained in the next slide.

Ryan Zimmerman Walks off Against the Braves on Opening Night of Nationals Park

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    The Nationals' relocation to Nationals Park gave way to opening night of the 2008 MLB season.

    Facing the Atlanta Braves, a team that's become a heated rival in recent years, Ryan Zimmerman blasted the shot heard 'round the world with his solo walk-off home run that gave the Nats a 3-2 victory and just their second opening-day victory.

    This transforming moment displayed the continued reliability of Washington's third baseman and ushered in a new era of Nationals baseball.

Hiring Davey Johnson

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    Before Davey Johnson was appointed as the fourth full-time manager of the Washington Nationals, no Nats manager had posted a winning record.

    In fact, between Frank Robinson, Manny Acta and Jim Riggleman, Johnson's predecessors, the Washington Nationals were coached to a collective record of 450-470.

    In Johnson's two-plus years as manager, the former player posted a combined record of 138-107 for a combined .563 winning percentage. 

    Johnson's arrival ignited a team that was excited to play under a player's coach in the term's truest sense. Davey loved the players, and the players loved Davey and put forth maximum effort for him every time out.

The Drafting of Stephen Strasburg

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    In 2010, Stephen Strasburg posted a 2.91 ERA, besting every pitcher before him that had started at least 10 games in the Washington Nationals' short history.

    Strasburg has gone on to do nothing but perform, even in the face of adversity and criticism.

    Coming off of Tommy John surgery that had sidelined Strasburg for over a year, the former No. 1 overall pick struck out a career-high 197 batters in 2012 to help lead his team to 98 wins.

    Strasburg is the Nationals ace pitcher—and a player that Washington cannot afford to lose.

Jayson Werth's Walk-Off Home Run in Game 4

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Game 4 of the 2012 NLDS was a must-win contest for Washington. Tied at two runs apiece in a series that the St. Louis Cardinals led, 2-1, Jayson Werth survived a 13-pitch at-bat to blast the Nationals into Game 5 with a solo home run.

    The moment that kept Washington alive for an ever-so-short period of time wasn't just a close victory. It was proof that the Nationals belonged.

    They stood up to the defending World Series champion and made a play when it was most needed.

The Drafting of Bryce Harper

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    April 28, 2012 was a day that changed the face of the Washington Nationals. When Bryce Harper struck a double to center field in his third major league at-bat, the new age of Nationals baseball arrived.

    Gaining the reputation of a high-effort player and a fierce competitor, the former No. 1 overall pick hit 22 home runs and drove in 59 more in 139 games.

    The center fielder is a fan favorite, and he played a large role in boosting fan support and attendance—an area where the Nats had struggled since their inception.

    Still only 21 years old, Harper continues to get better and better. Entering his third year, he's already solidified his spot as one of Washington's best players.

2012 National League East Champions

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    Greg Fiume/Getty Images

    The Nationals' 2012 campaign was a special one. The first season that resulted in a winning record also climaxed with an Oct. 1 Atlanta Braves loss that effectively clinched the National League East for Washington.

    Not only had the Washington Nationals never won a division crown, but the Montreal Expos hadn't won a division championship since 1994, and the former Washington Senators and current Minnesota Twins won just three division championships in 60 years in the nation's capital. 

    The 2012 NL East champions took a large step in transforming their brand and vastly expanded their fanbase in the process.

The Drafting of Ryan Zimmerman

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    Greg Fiume/Getty Images

    Since Ryan Zimmerman was drafted with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2005 MLB draft, the University of Virginia product has played 1,137 games at third base for the Nats, hitting 179 home runs and driving in 672 runs in the process.

    The two-time Silver Slugger award winner has struggled with injuries that have made his fielding ability the target for criticism as of late, even though he has committed less errors in his first nine seasons than Chipper Jones did.

    Zimmerman has been the single constant through everything for Washington. He was there for last-place finish after last-place finish. He was there for 118 combined wins in two seasons and Barry Bonds' 756th home run. So why isn't he mentioned in the conversation with young stars like Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg?

    Why do you only hear of his team-worst 21 errors and not his team-leading 26 home runs?

    At 29 years old and with nine seasons behind him, Zimmerman is nearing the top of the hill. The former All-Star doesn't care about individual accolades or status; he focuses on the fellowship with his teammates and collective success.

    The savvy veteran has come through for his team time and again, and though pieces around him have improved the team, and may now surpass him individually, the beating heart of the Washington Nationals still stands at third base.

    All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.