A Paul Bunyan in Their Midst
By Thomas Boswell
Monday, May 25, 2009
To understand what Adam Dunn's two home runs, one of them a grand slam, and his career-high six RBI, meant to him and his struggling Nationals yesterday in an 8-5 win over the Orioles, you have to go back five days. You have to revisit a moment typical of the frustration that has tormented the Nats all season. But may be starting to lift.
The 30,880 in Nationals Park on a warm Sunday will remember Dunn's towering fly in the sixth inning that carried and carried until it cleared the center field fence for a two-run homer to put the Nats ahead 4-3. And they'll recall the moment just one inning later when Manager Manny Acta took the bat out of the hands of two men -- one hitting .349, the other .348 -- just so Dunn could hit with the bases loaded and the game at stake. They'll chatter about how the big Dunn-key drove his game-winning slam to the opposite field off the scoreboard clock above the Birds' bullpen to prevent an O's series sweep.
But, for the proper context, let's rewind this long miserable 2-9 Nats homestand, a slump that has called into question whether the Nats were headed toward improvement on their awful '08 or were careening off the rails toward a dismal disaster of a season. Go back to Tuesday night when Dunn struck out in the ninth inning with the potential winning run on second base. The Nats then lost in the 10th inning to the Pirates.
Long after the game, when other Nats had left the scene of their nightly bullpen crime, Dunn lingered on a stool, seeking blame, or at least facing accountability. He didn't want to talk about the homer he'd hit that night, only about his galling strikeout.
"We came back to tie the game [in the ninth]. I thought, 'This is it. We're going to break out of it. We just need to get one big hit here,'" said Dunn. "But you have to step up and do it. I felt great. I saw every pitch good. But I swung through the last one. . . . I've always wanted to be a [team] leader. But to be a leader, you have to produce."
Throughout his eight years with the Reds, five of them 40-homer seasons, Dunn was typecast as the easy-going lug who didn't care enough -- about the team, his defense, his conditioning. That image was part of the reason the Nats got him when the free agent market dried up and his phone didn't ring. Why, $20 million was enough to get a 275-pound slugger for two years. The Nats probably could have signed him for a third year, too, but shied away. Dunn says that image was never him. Whatever. It's not him now.
All season the 13-30 Nats have found inventive ways to lose every sort of game. No recapitulations, please. In the seventh, the wheels of baseball malice seemed to be turning again. After two singles, Acta chose to have Cristian Guzmán (.349) sacrifice bunt, knowing the Orioles would walk Ryan Zimmerman (.348) intentionally so the slow-footed double-play-
prone Dunn would have to face Walker whose role in life is to face hitters exactly like Dunn.
"I thought, 'Let 'em pitch to Dunn,' " said Acta, ignoring Dunn's history of 170-strikeout years. "He showed how important he is to our lineup and how much we needed him over here. It's a totally different story when you have a guy like Dunn behind Zimmerman."
"I like it," said Dunn, considering Acta's strategic sacrifice of Guzman and Zimmerman, just so he could be the man. "It's good to know my manager has confidence in me." With that, to his credit, he rolled his eyes to the sky.
Even Dunn finds it hard to believe how perceptions of him have changed. Of course, when you're hitting .284 and are on pace for 52 homers and 144 RBI, you tend to get a lot of respect. When a teammate, Nick Johnson, shows up sick to his stomach before the game, and you volunteer to play first base -- where you've seldom played and sometimes been embarrassed -- then make two scoops in the same inning to save Zimmerman from errors, you will usually be appreciated.
Some games mean more than others. If the Nats had lost 10 games in an 11-game homestand, something so ugly as to be almost a statistical impossibility, their season might have gone from pratfall to free fall. The slow improvement of their bullpen would have been easy to ignore. The emergence of five young starting pitchers, none dominant, but all promising and none of them named Daniel Cabrera, might have been overlooked.
Instead, Dunn played Paul Bunyan and carried the whole load.
"Bless the Lord we won this one," said Acta. "This was a really bad homestand. That was going to be a long train ride to New York."
Now, instead of being merely bearable, it will be a kind of pleasure.
"We've been getting better work from the bullpen. The rotation has been getting better," said Josh Willingham. "But things kept going against us. When it finally clicks, we could string off seven or eight wins in a row."
Of course, all teams, including bad ones, believe this. Or at least they still do in May. But it's also the reason that almost every team, including the poor ones, actually do have winning streaks that can turn a bad season into a productive one.
"In a snapshot world, this is just one game," said interim GM Mike Rizzo. "But, in a longer view, the way we've been playing so well, so close lately, you need some things to go right. Because things have definitely been going against us.
"That's when you need your best players to perform. That's why we brought Adam here. He's never been anointed the leader before. But he's become a quiet leader here. He'll take it on. And he'll deflect criticism from his teammates onto himself."
Now, instead of riding the rails to New York thinking how dismal they are, the Nats can, if they choose, focus on a kind of mythic strongman in their midst who takes pressure off Zimmerman, who hit balls off scoreboards in Arizona that nobody believed would ever be reached and who cracks jokes while he's doing it.
"Adam makes everybody feel better," said reliever Joel Hanrahan who, in recent days, has rediscovered his 96 mph fastball and even added a bit of bravado to his mound manner. Is this the Dunn swagger?
"Don't know," said Hanrahan. "But I need to get some 'attitude' out there."
Right now, what attitude the Nats have, or even aspire to, comes from Dunn. "If you ask him what he was thinking in that at bat, he'll probably say, 'Oh, I was just trying to get the bat on it and I happened to hit it hard,' " said Zimmerman.
So, Adam, what were you thinking?
"I was thinking, 'Grand slam home run,' " he said.
And almost kept a straight face.