September 10, 2012
It was a bright and sunny afternoon in Our Nation's Capital as I met up with my old friend Dave Givens, but the early innings of the game being played did not reflect the fine weather, from the point of view of us home-team fans. (We were in the upper-deck nosebleed seats, where the roof provides shade.) But the tide of battle started to turn as storm clouds approached from the west, and after a long rain delay, the Washington Nationals pulled off a big comeback victory over the Miami Marlins. After all the angst over the race for the postseason and the end of Stephen Strasburg's season (see below), the final result was a huge relief.
For the first few innings, it looked like the Nationals were heading toward a virtual repeat performance of the night before. In the top of the first inning, the Marlins hit two solo home runs (by Gorkys Hernandez and Giancarlo Stanton), and put another run on the board in the second inning. The Nationals did not get a hit until the third inning, when Jesus Flores smacked a ball into the first row in left field for a home run. Three singles an inning later yielded another run, but then the Marlins scored two more in the top of the fifth, making it 5-2. It was just not Ross Detwiler's day, and Craig Stammen replaced him on the mound after that. In the bottom of the fifth inning, I witnessed something that I will never forget: a home run by Bryce Harper! It was a booming, no-doubt line drive that landed about halfway up the mezzanine level under the scoreboard in right center field. hittrackeronline.com estimates the ball would have gone 444 feet, and I figure it traveled 405 feet horizontally, and landed about 45 feet above the field level. Wow!!!
Unfortunately, the other Nats failed to sustain the momentum, and meanwhile the Marlins got another run in the seventh inning on an error charged to Ryan Zimmerman. I thought he did well just to field the high-hopping ground ball and throw it near first base in time, but Adam LaRoche couldn't scoop it up, allowing the runner to score with two outs. That made it 6-3, and the Nationals' fans started getting restless. As the skies darkened in the eighth inning, fortune smiled just a little bit. Bryce Harper took first base after being hit by a pitch, and on an 0-2 count, Ryan Zimmerman smashed the ball into the seats behind the visitors' bullpen in left-center field. Perhaps the fact that it was "Ryan Zimmerman Bobblehead Day" (I got my freebie souvenir, which was very well made) made the difference. The Nats loaded the bases with two hits and a walk, but Roger Bernadina struck out to end the inning. In any event, the gap was narrowed to just one run.
Tyler Clippard came in as a relief pitcher in the top of the ninth, and struck out three of the four batters he faced, an encouraging sign after the shakiness he exhibited the night before. Then the clouds turned black and fierce winds blew in, with rain that soon turned into a heavy downpour. Fortunately, the grounds crew got the tarp down in quick time, despite the high winds. The crowd quickly evacuated into the concourses, which are rather exposed to the elements in the upper deck, and before you knew it there were hundreds of napkins, straws, and paper bags swirling all around us. It was really scary for a few minutes, and people were screaming. The rain just would not quit, and I could see deep puddles accumulating along the warning tracks. After an hour, most of the 28,860 fans had left, and after two hours there were only a couple thousand at the most. The fact that the Nationals were down by a run really had me wondering if it was worth the risk that the game might be suspended, but I stuck it out, and it paid off big time. Further north, meanwhile, the game in Philadelphia was rained out, and the Braves-Mets game in Citi Field was delayed for a few hours, as two tornadoes were sighted nearby in Queens and Brooklyn. Yikes!
(Non-compensated endorsement: During the lengthy rain delay, I was cold, wet, and hungry, wandering around the main concourse looking for something good to eat. That's when I stumbled upon Ben's Chili Bowl, a locally famous eatery. A hot bowl of tasty chili was exactly what my body needed.)
Finally, after 2 1/2 hours of waiting, play resumed, and Jayson Werth stepped up to the plate. On a 3-2 count, in a steady drizzle, he launched a home run deep into the Red Porch section just left of center field. I was only about 80 feet away, five rows in back of the Nationals' dugout, and I was astounded by the trajectory that ball took. Could it possibly be?? Yes, it was a home run, tying the game, 6-6. And the crowd (or what was left of it) went wild!!! The next three batters struck out, unfortunately, but so did the three Marlins batters in the top of the tenth inning. That's when the big rally got started. Adam LaRoche singled, and so did Ian Desmond, sending LaRoche to third. The Marlins' pitcher Heath Bell intentionally walked Danny Espinosa, who has gained a reputation for being a clutch hitter, and the bases were loaded. Kurt Suzuki grounded into a fielder's choice, with LaRoche being thrown out at home. The next batter was pinch-hitter Corey Brown, recently called up from the minors. On the second pitch he hit a fly ball near the right field line, and as Ian Desmond prepared to tag up on third base, Giancarlo Stanton dropped the ball, allowing the winning run to score easily. Had he caught it, it might have been a close play, but it didn't matter. The Nationals rushed out of the dugout and mobbed the hero, who got a cooler full of ice water dumped on him as a gesture of appreciation. Final score: Nats 7, Marlins 6.
It's all about the NATITUDE!!!
Yes, sports fans, in the end it turned out to be a great day to see a Nationals baseball game. Four home runs! What an amazing come-back, in surreal weather conditions. For a full game recap, see MLB.com.
As you can see, one big benefit of the rain delay from my point of view, was the "upgraded" seating that the ushers were kind enough to grant to us hard-core fans. Being able to sit close to the action, I got some great photos of the players:
Those photos (and perhaps more) will be displayed soon on the Nationals Park page.
Overshadowing the game on Saturday was the news that Stephen Strasburg had been shut down for the rest of this season. (NOTE: In my previous blog post, I had the wrong impression from what Manager Davey Johnson had said after the Friday game.) Johnson explained that all the talk about how Strasburg should be handled had become too much of a distraction for Strasburg, who had a poor outing on Friday, and for the rest of the team. I tend to agree with the decision, but I wish there had been some way to gradually throttle back Strasburg, rather than just abruptly jerking him out like that. Strasburg himself expressed frustration, saying he felt like he let the team down going out with that loss on Friday. Well, that's understandable. Washington Post Thomas Boswell wrote that the Nationals must now face another in a long series of challenges, involving psychological fortitude more than anything else. The talent and depth is clearly there, but without the special aura surrounding Strasburg, it's hard to know how the others will perform.
Washington Post columnist Norman Chad strongly dissents from the front office decision to protect their investment. "Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime." I know an opportunity like this might not come again soon, but everything I have observed tells me the Nationals have put together a solid, winning team that will be postseason contenders for years to come. Chad notes that the man for whom Tommy John surgery was named, Tommy John, opined that there was no good reason to shut down Strasburg. He kind of sounds like a grouchy old geezer: "Why, back when I was young, we had to walk to school five miles through snow drifts..."
The Nats won seven and lost just three during the ten-game home stand. Attendance has been lagging a bit, but an important milestone was passed on the day I was there: For the first time since 2008 (the inaugural year of Nationals Park), they have exceeded the two-million mark. I learned that from a scoreboard announcement, and confirmed it with my own records: 2,025,106. With ten more home games to go in the regular season, they'll probably end up with about 2.3 million for the year.
Anyone who hoped that the big comeback win on Saturday would regenerate momentum for the Nats was disappointed on Sunday, when the visitors from Miami trounced the home team 8-0. Let's just forget that one, OK? It was the same starting pitcher who had shut out the Nats on August 28, Ricky Nolasco. Over the years, the Marlins have often been a nemesis for the Nationals. For whatever reason, the last-place team in the NL East this year has a 9-9 record with the best team in the division.
Tonight the Nationals began a road trip with a game against the Mets in Citi Field, and all of a sudden their bats woke up again. Kurt Suzuki, Ryan Zimmerman, and Ian Desmond all hit home runs in what used to be a very unfriendly venue for sluggers. Final score: Nats 5, Mets 1, and Gio Gonzalez became the first major league pitcher to reach 19 wins for the season. Better yet, with the Braves' loss to the Brewers tonight, the Nats' magic number has dropped to just 15.