Monday was a needed day of decompression. The schedule had been gaining steam for a month, providing the Washington Nationals almost no time to pause.
That was clear when it was revealed over the winter, with April 25 left blank following 15 consecutive days of work. There was no way of knowing then just how embraced Monday’s off day would be. What happened on Sunday had not happened before in franchise history, pushing that open calendar spot from pleasurable to paramount.
“The guys are psyched,” Nationals manager Dusty Baker said on Sunday night. “Now we can have a tremendous off day.”
Following Sunday’s 6-5, 16-inning win, the longest game in Nationals history, Washington is 14-4. It was the best record in the major leagues entering Monday. The mark also represents a tie for the best start in franchise history, as the Nationals were 14-4 in 2012. The Washington Senators were also 14-4 back in 1932.
Sunday’s lunacy pushed them to the record-matching start, delivering expected and unlikely plays of grand importance along the way. For instance, Bryce Harper’s pinch-hit, tying home run in the bottom of the ninth inning continued his ongoing challenge to logic. It’s not reasonable to expect Harper to have one at-bat, work the count to 3-2, then hit a home run to center field to tie the game, is it?
“We’ve come to expect he’s going to do something special,” outfielder Chris Heisey said. “You can’t not expect it when he’s been doing it as consistently as he’s been doing it. I find myself putting really unfair expectations on him. He gets jammed or pops out, you’re like, ‘What the heck Harp?’ You got to remember that it’s really hard, obviously.”
“He believed that he was going to do it,” Baker said. “That’s what impressed me the most. Confidence is not his problem, you know what I mean? Anything he does, he doesn’t seem surprised, and I’m not surprised. But I’m extremely happy, and I’m sure he is, too.”
Harper has followed his season as the youngest unanimous MVP in baseball history with a roaring start. He leads MLB with nine home runs, which equals the number of times he has struck out. His .855 slugging percentage rivals the results of Bugs Bunny’s prodigious hacks. As he strives to “Make Baseball Fun Again”, Harper is making that all the easier via dominant play.
“Just try to have good at-bats,” Harper said. “Just swing at the pitches I can. Be more patient — get better at that. [I’ve been] swinging at pitches out of the zone a little more the past couple games. But, just trying to make things happen.”
The random leftovers from Sunday’s game only bring more head-shaking:
⦁ In the last eight years, no team had done what Washington did. The last time a team tied a game with a bottom-of-the-ninth home run and won it in the 15th inning or later with another home run was on May 25, 2008, when the San Diego Padres defeated the Cincinnati Reds, 12-9, in 18 innings. The Reds’ manager at the time? Baker.
⦁ Baker has won 1,685 games as a major-league manager, but it was his first victory in which his team trailed in the ninth inning and again in extra innings.
⦁ Reliever Yusmeiro Petit threw 77 pitches on Sunday. He had thrown 100 pitches total in four previous appearances.
⦁ Starter Stephen Strasburg threw 114 pitches. Only three times in his career had he thrown more in a start.
⦁ Reliever Oliver Perez made his first plate appearance since 2010. He said it was the third time in his career he tried to bunt.
⦁ Heisey’s walkoff home run was the first of his major-league career.
⦁ After singling as a pinch-hitter, starting pitcher Joe Ross is now 3-for-7 this season, good for a .429 average.
The machine begins churning again on Tuesday when the Philadelphia Phillies visit for a three-game series. The Nationals had to adjust their upcoming rotation because of a blister on Ross’ middle finger. He departed his start on April 20 after two innings because of the irritation, then later had the affected skin shaved.
“He isn’t going to do no fingerprinting any time soon,” Baker said.
Max Scherzer (2-1, 4.32 ERA) will pitch the opener, followed by Gio Gonzalez (1-0, 1.42 ERA) and Tanner Roark (2-2, 2.63 ERA).
After the series against Philadelphia, much more staunch tests of who the Nationals are will begin. Washington has played several dragging opponents to open the season. As of Monday, their opposition is 34-57 on the year, good for a substandard winning percentage of .374.
On Thursday night, Washington will fly to middle America for a week’s worth of challenges. First, three games against the St. Louis Cardinals, then three against the Kansas City Royals. Four against the Chicago Cubs end the road trip. It’s hard to fathom any of them will be able to match what happened on Sunday.