It probably would have been easier had the Washington Nationals just given in Monday night. Easier if they had succumbed to the rain, or the fatigue from a draining Sunday, or the latest devastating injury dealt them.
In the span of an inning, the Nationals went from celebrating a much-anticipated milestone, the first home run from 19-year-old outfielder Bryce Harper, to playing in a state of shock at the loss of rookie catcher Sandy Leon. From building a three-run lead to giving it all back — and then building it again.
They went from urging Harper out to the dugout's top step for a curtain call, to standing silently on the field as Leon was helped off it by the Nationals' trainers. Less than 48 hours after they watched catcher Wilson Ramos helped off much the same way, Leon was lost to a high right ankle sprain. He left the clubhouse with his foot in a boot, wheeling his right leg on a stool.
His teammates walked off the field with an 8-5 victory over the San Diego Padres, badly needed if for the emotional lift alone. Even though they almost did, in fact, give in. Henry Rodriguez took the mound with a three-run lead in the ninth, just hours after his manager had staunchly defended him, and promptly walked the bases loaded. Sean Burnett was summoned for a game-ending double play.
"A lot of good things happened today," said Nationals manager Davey Johnson, who maintained his confidence in Rodriguez as the team's closer in Drew Storen's absence. "The kid hit his first home run, the bench delivered big. It was, overall, a good game, except for an injury."
The "good" parts, of course, were highlighted by Harper, 62 plate appearances in to his major league career, popping out of the dugout to rousing applause from the announced 19,434 soggy fans for a curtain call. Harper, pointing first to his right and then to his left, acknowledging the cheers that were acknowledging the first of what they all hope will be many home run swings.
"I wasn't sure if I should have went up there," Harper said, completing his home run sprint in 18 seconds and darting into the dugout almost immediately. "I was just standing there waiting like, 'Should I go? Nah, I better not. Don't do it.' Then (Jayson Werth) was like, 'Go, get up there, kid.' "
The ball, which gave the Nationals a 4-1 lead at the time, sat in his locker after the game, '1st ML Homer' written in ink. It was easily retrieved since it was hit to the grass batter's eye in dead center field, at least 420 feet from where he stood at home plate. He has a few other balls from his career, he said, including his first home run as a kid at age seven, and he expected this ball might just end up in his cardboard box with the rest of them, even if it did hold more meaning.
"I've got no words for it," Harper said. "Hopefully it's one of many."
But the kicker, of course, came a half-inning later.
Leon will be the 10th Nationals player placed on the disabled list when he goes on it on Tuesday, his major league debut lasting all of four innings. The Nationals are expected to recall catcher Carlos Maldonado from Triple-A Syracuse.
Leon was plowed into on a play at the plate by Padres third baseman Chase Headley. As Leon readied for the relay throw from second baseman Danny Espinosa on a double to center field, the ball skipped under his glove as Headley bowled him over. Leon immediately came up limping and fell to his knees to the right of home plate. The Nationals felt the play was clean, if unfortunate.
"I thought it was a clean play, and I'm sorry it resulted the way it did," Headley said. "When I was coming in, I was intending to slide. I was even looking to to slide to the inside. But there was nowhere to go. He had the plate totally blocked and the ball wasn't there yet."
A three-run lead then quickly evaporated. Starter Ross Detwiler admitted he was rattled by the injury and subsequent switch in catchers as Jesus Flores took over. But the Nationals rallied again, rapping out 11 hits, led by Ian Desmond (3-for-5 with a double and two RBI) and home runs from pinch hitter Chad Tracy and sub Xavier Nady.
They regained first place, back up a half-game over the Atlanta Braves, who lost to Cincinnati, and risk no less than a series split in this two-game set with the Padres that wraps up on Tuesday. But it came, again, at a price. As Leon wheeled his way out of the Nationals' clubhouse, Flores sat alone at his locker.
"What can I say?" he said. "It's really frustrating to watch my teammates going down. It's like something going on and hopefully it stops happening."
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