The gap between the Washington Nationals and the Chicago Cubs was made perfectly clear this week at Nationals Park.
The difference in the caliber of play between baseball's best team and one of its worst was on full display. The four-game barrage was, as Cubs manager Dale Sveum put it, "one of the biggest butt-whuppings I’ve ever gotten in my career."
But if there’s one thing the Nationals have proven this season, it’s that they do not care for the plight of their opponents. They'll swing at 3-0 pitches and steal bases with a five-run lead. They’ll continue to take the extra base and pile on as much as they can. They will not let what happened to them on a rainy July night against the Atlanta Braves happen again.
All of that was evident in Washington's 9-2 clobbering that sealed a four-game sweep of the Cubs that reduced the Nats' magic number to clinch the National League East to 18. And when the Cubs, their roster littered with unknowns, took exception with the beating, they fought back. First with their mouths, then with their pitches and finally, with their arms.
"We ain't stopping trying to score runs," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "If they want to quit competing and forfeit, then fine. But we're going to keep competing."
Bryce Harper’s hustle turning a double into a triple and a groundout into a run, Kurt Suzuki’s 3-for-5 night, and Adam LaRoche’s sixth home run in as many days will be footnotes on Friday morning because of it.
The benches and bullpens cleared twice Thursday night, instigated by Cubs bench coach Jamie Quirk screaming obscenities at Nationals third base coach Bo Porter in the bottom of the fifth inning after the Nationals, leading 7-2, stole twice and gave Jayson Werth the green light to swing on a 3-0 pitch with the bases loaded.
One inning later, Cubs right-hander Lendy Castillo threw his first pitch to Bryce Harper significantly inside and the benches and bullpens cleared again. Michael Morse, Edwin Jackson and Sean Burnett were particularly active on the Nationals’ side, taking exception to a shove from catcher Steve Clevenger, who insisted he was "just trying to break everybody up."
When the dust settled, Quirk, Clevenger and reliever Manny Corpas were ejected for the Cubs, along with Nationals lefty Michael Gonzalez, though the Nationals felt Gonzalez was ejected merely to keep things even.
"It's still a game," Gonzalez said of the five-run lead. "I respect those guys in the other clubhouse but sometimes I think they need to learn how to play the game a little better. There was nothing wrong with how we played ball."
"I think I’d be pretty pissed off if I was getting my teeth kicked in all weekend, too, but you can’t lay down," Harper said, shrugging off getting thrown at as "just trying to check off everything on my list." That list includes getting hit intentionally, stealing home, multi-homer games, getting ejected and being on the team with the best record in baseball.
In seven of eight innings Thursday the Nationals either loaded the bases or scored. It was the pièce de résistance on a four-game bludgeoning in which the Nationals hit 14 home runs and outscored the Cubs 31-9. But that didn’t change their outlook in the fifth inning.
"That’s in no way a blowout," LaRoche said. "You’re talking about a couple of base hits, a big swing and they’re right back in the game... We’re not gonna lay down. We’ve already been beat when we’re winning by nine once. No point in laying down in the fifth inning. You keep grinding. If they don’t like it, oh well."
It was almost exactly two months ago that the Nationals suffered their worst defeat since moving to D.C., watching a nine-run lead disappear in a gut-wrenching loss to the Braves. To a man, every player questioned in the aftermath of Thursday’s fracas cited that game as their main reason for not letting off the gas pedal.
Clearly, Quirk did not agree.
"The fracas was started because all that stuff was instigated by Quirk screaming out at Porter," said home plate umpire Jerry Layne, the crew chief. "And the obscenities that he screamed out I just felt was inappropriate. That’s what caused everything."
Replays showed that while Clevenger was retrieving a new glove from the dugout in the fifth, Quirk shouted at Porter repeatedly from the dugout before Porter finally walked over and appeared to be telling Quirk "That’s how we play," before the words and the actions escalated.
When the bottom of the frame began, Castillo’s first pitch forced Harper to jut out of the way to avoid being hit. At that point, Harper turned toward Castillo and began to jaw at him. Werth and Ryan Zimmerman immediately intervened, protecting their 19-year-old rookie, but the benches and bullpens were already empty for the second time and the tensions continued to flare.
To the left of the mound, Clevenger shoved Morse, which incited a near riot with the slugger, Burnett and Jackson, all three of whom had to be restrained by Nationals coaches. Out by second base, Gonzalez and Anthony Rizzo got into it, too, as both sides tried to sort things out.
Porter declined to address the incident, saying only that his reaction stemmed from Quirk’s comments and "when it comes to our players I’m very passionate."
"Every time you start the game there’s two teams out there," Porter said. "And when I was younger I did Gold Glove boxing and my trainer would always tell me before the bell rang, ‘Just in case you didn’t know, when this bell ring that guy over there he’s gonna hit back.’"
Music blared over the speakers in the Nationals’ clubhouse as Thursday inched toward Friday and they could laugh about what had played out on their field because they’d won, and they didn’t let their tempers get the best of them.
"We got a lot more to lose [than them]," LaRoche said. "I think that’s what Davey and [the coaches] were trying to get everybody back and say ‘Listen, if one of us does something it’s going to cost us a lot more than one of their guys at this point in the year.’
"I think for them most part guys kept their head on their shoulders. It didn’t get too out of control. That’s not what we need this time of year – get a suspension or somebody break a finger or something. It worked out alright."
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