ATLANTA — When the bullpen doors in left field opened early Sunday morning, the digital clock hanging on the facade of the second deck in right field read 12:40 a.m.
Dan Haren, the Washington Nationals’ scheduled starter for Tuesday’s game, stared straight ahead and began his jog to the mound. Wilson Ramos, preparing to catch his 15th inning of the game, met him there. He dropped the ball into his glove and patted him on the back.
“Let’s do it,” Ramos told Haren.
Nine minutes later, Haren finished off the Nationals’ 8-7 victory over the Atlanta Braves for his first career save. All it took was nine minutes — and Adam LaRoche’s long home run moments earlier — from the 18th pitcher to enter the game to finish off the longest contest in Nationals’ history.
Five hours and 29 minutes had passed since the game’s first pitch. There were 518 pitches thrown from start to finish. Forty-four players appeared in the game at one point or another, and neither team’s starter made it out of the second inning.
Stephen Strasburg and Davey Johnson were ejected four hours and 24 minutes before the final out was made. In the ninth, Rafael Soriano blew his sixth save of the season. Craig Stammen, who got the win, combined with Tanner Roark, Ian Krol and Haren to post six scoreless frames in extras.
By the end of the game, Kurt Suzuki, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann were the only Nationals players not to appear.
“Golly,” said LaRoche, who didn’t even enter the game until the eighth inning and joked that the adderall prescribed for his attention deficit disorder had worn off hours ago. “What a battle.”
Strasburg and Johnson were tossed in the second inning after Strasburg, who’d hit Justin Upton in the first with what certainly appeared to be a 97-mph purpose pitch, lost all control. He threw seven pitches. All were balls. The last three were wild pitches, including two behind the back of Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons.
With warnings issued after Upton was hit, and given the fact that the Braves had hit Bryce Harper three times in the previous three games between the teams without retaliation, home plate umpire Marvin Hudson couldn’t let it go on any longer. Strasburg didn’t argue. He simply walked off the field. Johnson, after briefly explaining that his pitcher lacked all command, followed him.
Haren, who’d thrown a 30-pitch bullpen earlier in the day and lifted weights, told pitching coach Steve McCatty right then he could go if they needed him to.
“He hit (Upton) in the rear-end, I don’t think it’s a big deal, you know?” Johnson said. “But I don’t know if he did it on purpose or not. Obviously he didn’t have very good command.
“When he went back out in the second inning, I’ve never seen his command so bad. He didn’t come close to the first hitter he faced. He threw a curveball that was eight feet outside. Then he threw a couple behind the hitter. Didn’t look like they were trying to hit him. He couldn’t even find the strike zone.”
When the two made it back to the clubhouse, Johnson asked Strasburg straight out: “Are you hurt? Is something wrong with you?” Strasburg told him he was just a little “out of sorts.”
“I can’t really explain it,” Strasburg said, admitting the long innings Braves starter Mike Minor had on the other side affected him. “Just didn’t really feel good out there and couldn’t hit the spot.”
Asked directly if he hit Upton on purpose, Strasburg said, “I’m not going to get into that.”
But there was no doubt about the message he sent in his own clubhouse. The Nationals had watched Harper get hit multiple times, and felt it was time to stand up for their 20-year-old phenom.
“Well, they hit Harper quite a bit,” said bench coach Randy Knorr, who took over for Johnson after his ejection. “So I don’t know if somebody said something or if he just decided to do it on his own. If he decided to do it on his own, I’m proud of him.”
“I mean, they’re just throwing at us to throw at us,” said Stammen. “(Braves reliever Luis Avilan) can say he didn’t do it on purpose, but he hit him in the back arm. Which isn’t even close when the guy’s been throwing strikes all the time. So, I mean, you can say whatever it is, but the game will always police itself. And credit to their hitters, when they got hit, they walked down to first base, they took it like men and that’s kind of how it is. It should be over now.”
“Whether it got away from him or not, he’s got my respect,” LaRoche said. “I was impressed.”
Once Strasburg and Johnson had departed, the Nationals went about putting together a strong offensive game.
They scored four runs in the first two innings, with Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos taking advantage of opportunities early, and tacked on runs late. Tanner Roark first career hit was an RBI-double, Ian Desmond had an RBI-single. Ryan Zimmerman’s 14th home run put them up 7-4.
But while Roark and Drew Storen combined for five scoreless innings of relief, Fernando Abad, Tyler Clippard and Soriano combined to allow five earned runs from the sixth to the ninth.
By the time Stammen entered in the bottom of the 12th inning, Jason Heyward’s two home runs — leading off the game and to tie it in the ninth — seemed like distant memories.
“I figured I’m going to pitch until the game’s over,” Stammen said. “So, I’m either going to get walked-off on, or I’m going to win the game.”
When he came in after a 1-2-3 14th, which featured two strikeouts, Stammen flashed a thumbs-up to Knorr. He wanted to go another inning. Having thrown two the day before, Knorr knew he couldn’t do that to him. He had to go to Haren.
“My right arm thanks him,” Stammen said.
“We needed a game like this,” said Haren, who brushed off any concerns he’d have to miss his start on Tuesday. “Just something to pick our heads up. Come out tomorrow, hopefully win and go from there… The way the game was going, it’s so heartbreaking with them tying it in the ninth.
“I feel like we were destined to win that game, some way, somehow. Five-hour games are fine when you win them, but when you lose them, they really stink.”