By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
Georgia Tech baseball and its fans have two very good reasons to watch Major League Baseball’s National League Playoffs, which begins tonight.
They are Colorado Rockies center fielder Charlie Blackmon and Washington Nationals catcher Matt Wieters, former Yellow Jacket teammates taking their best shot at getting their teams to the World Series.
In fact, Tech fans can be invested from the very first pitch of Wednesday night’s first pitch of the N.L. Wildcard game at Chase Field, when Blackmon, Colorado’s lead-off hitter, steps into the batter’s box to face Arizona right-hander Zack Greinke.
It’s a challenge that’s a lifetime and seven years in the Majors in the making for Blackmon, who’ll be making his first-ever MLB Playoff appearance.
“This is what you dream about as kids,” Blackmon told MLB.com. “We were just asking for a chance and we snuck in there just under the wire. I wouldn’t have it any other way, to be honest.”
Wieters doesn’t mind that he went a different way to earn his fourth career postseason appearance in nine seasons and first in the National League. He and the Washington Nationals cruised through the N.L. East, winning the division by 20 games and leading pretty much wire-to-wire -- they held or shared first place for all but four days and were never more than one game back.
Unlike Blackmon’s Rockies who’ll need to beat Arizona tonight to advance to the best-of-seven National League Division Series against their N.L. West rival Los Angeles Dodgers, Wieters' Nats know they’ll host the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs in their NLDS series, beginning Friday evening at Nationals Park.
Regardless of how long the Rockies and Nationals play, both former Jackets will remember the 2017 season.
Blackmon had the finest season of his major league career, winning his first batting title by hitting a .331 (nine points higher than Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner and Washington second baseman Daniel Murphy) and seven points higher than his previous best, last season.
But he didn’t stop there.
Blackmon set MLB records for the most runs batted in (104) and total bases (387) by a lead-off man, finished third all-time for single-season homers by a lead-off hitter (37), and became only the third lead-off man since 1914 with at least 85 extra-base hits (35 doubles, 14 triples with the 37 homers). In addition to RBIs and total bases, he led MLB with 213 hits, 137 runs, 14 triples, and 67 multi-hit games (also a Rockies franchise record).
All this production as well as a solid year on defense (.990 fielding, four assists vs. three errors) led to MVP consideration. Blackmon started his first All-Star Game at Marlins Park in Miami, the night after making his first appearance in the MLB Home Run Derby.
Blackmon was as big online as he was on field. He became an Internet sensation, courtesy of his No. 1 fan, two-year-old Tommy Carlson and his Twitter handle, @Chuck_Nazty blew up -- he now has over 34,000 followers. The latter has certainly come a long way.
“When I was hurt in 2011. It was just a way for me to interact with the fans,” he recalled. “The Rockies PR guys asked me what I wanted my Twitter handle to be. I spent WAY too little time thinking about it and I just blurted out ‘Chuck Nazty,’ not thinking much of it.
“I didn’t realize that it would follow me around as long as it has,” he added, with a laugh. “Otherwise I would have spent more time thinking about it. It didn’t even occur to me at the time that it would become a thing.”
His success, especially in the outfield, is something that didn’t occur to Wieters back in 2007, when he was a senior and Blackmon was a redshirt junior.
“I’m ecstatic and amazed for Charlie because when I played with him he was still pitching,” Wieters said. “You knew what kind of an athlete he was and kind of the freak ability he has, just from working out with him and going through our daily workout routines, but for him to be able to be one of the best hitters in the National League, I didn’t see that at that point. For him to have the athletic ability and the mental ability to make himself into one of the best hitters in the National League is really impressive.”
He certainly doesn’t look the same, as the Rockies lead-off guy now sports a big, bushy, beard and long, flowing hair, but Charlie Blackmon is here to stay in center field at Coors Field and “Chuck Nazty” is on Twitter.
“I guess I wouldn’t change it just because it’s kind of fitting now that I look like I look,” he said. “It’s somewhat fitting.”
He hopes the Rockies, making their first playoff berth since 2009, are befitting a long playoff run. That’s a goal Wieters has as well.
His 2017 was a little different than Blackmon’s. The clean-cut catcher made a clean break from Baltimore, where he’d spent his first eight seasons and entire professional career, prior to the season, moving some 40 miles to the south to play with the Nats. He became the 25th player to play for both the Orioles and Nationals.
Switching leagues worked out nicely for Wieters, as it led to more frequent trips to Atlanta.
“It’s been nice to get home even though it’s only for like three days at a time, as quick as we’re out of here,” he said. “It’s always nice to get back to Atlanta, get back home and get back to some Southern hospitality that you can miss a lot in the Major League Baseball lifestyle.
“I think I’d only been back to Atlanta twice in my whole eight years with Baltimore.”
He not only got home but felt right at home with Washington, where he handled a strong pitching staff that included 2016 Cy Young winner Max Scherzer and ‘17 Cy Young candidate Stephen Strasburg, who had his best season in the majors throwing to Wieters. The Nats were 78-34 and pitched to a 3.58 ERA with Wieters behind home plate.
While Wieters had his struggles at the plate (.225 average) he reached double-digit homers (10) for the sixth time in his career, and had two of his biggest blasts against the Cubs -- his eighth career grand slam on Aug. 6 to beat them, 9-4, at Wrigley Field, and the second of back-to-back homers on June 28 at Nationals Park in an 8-4 Washington win.
Wieters hopes for a couple more blasts this week off a Cubs’ staff that limited him to six hits in 24 at-bats (.250) but four of those hits were for extra bases (two homers and two doubles). He’d also like to see the team repeat its regular season success in the postseason (Washington won the season series 4-3). That would result in the Nats advancing to the National League Championship Series, something they’ve never done.
It wouldn’t surprise Jackets fans if Wieters, a recent inductee into the Georgia Tech Athletics Hall of Fame, excelled in the postseason. They still recall the guy who went 8-for-9 (.889), with three homers and six RBIs in being named Most Outstanding Player of the 2006 Atlanta Regional, reaching base safely in 14 of 15 plate appearances, posting a .933 on-base percentage and a 1.889 slugging percentage. He’d continue the video game-like numbers, as in the NCAAs, he went 11-for-17 in the NCAA Tournament (.647) in five games, helping the Jackets get to the 2006 College World Series.
Of course, there is one area they should NOT expect to see him rekindle his glory days. That’s on the mound.
Wieters adamantly refuses to even approach Nationals’ manager Dusty Baker to take the hill even in the most lopsided game.
“Not anymore,” said Wieters with a laugh. “When I was younger it was kind of a pipe dream, ‘Hey, one day get back on the mound and see if I still have it.’ But after Tommy John and going through the rehab for that I’m going to save all of my bullets for being able to catch as long as I can. Pitching was fun when I did it but I’ve moved on past that pipe dream of getting back on the mound one day.”
Wieters has a bigger dream now -- getting Washington to the World Series.
Who knows? Wieters’ Nats might even meet Blackmon’s Rockies in the NLCS.
That’s a dream that for the two former Jackets can start becoming reality tonight.