WASHINGTON – The Giants arrived in the District of Columbia late Wednesday night. By the time they saw their first pitch at Nationals Park, it was after 10 p.m. on Saturday.
But there are worse things than waiting through rain delays and postponements. Much, much worse.
The ballpark fell into stunned silence in the first inning of the Nationals’ 3-1 victory when star player Bryce Harper stomped on a wet first base, his cleat slid, his left knee buckled and he went flying as if violently ejected from a moving vehicle.
Harper’s face twisted in agony as he held his left knee. It took a trainer and a base coach to assist him off the field. All the while – down the dugout stairs, then down the tunnel to the clubhouse — he put no weight on his injured left leg.
The Nationals’ best hope is that Harper sustained nothing beyond a hyperextension. Anything worse would mean torn ligaments, and surgery, and a significant handicap in October for a team that should coast to its fourth NL East title in five years yet thus far has failed to advance beyond the best-of-5 NL Division Series.
And it would mean that Major League Baseball’s greatest stage would be deprived one of its most talented and recognizable players — one of few legitimate and marketable stars who resonate beyond casual fans of the game.
Harper entered the game ranked fourth in the NL in hitting (.326), fourth in on-base percentage (.419), third in slugging (.619) and second in OPS (1.034). Only the Rockies’ Charlie Blackmon had scored more runs. He had 29 homers and was on pace to hit 41 while driving in 124.
It was the first time the Giants and Nationals crossed paths since the late May series at AT&T Park, and the benches-clearing incident that was window dressing for a one-on-one confrontation between Harper, right-hander Hunter Strickland and the reliever’s three-year grievance. Strickland, apparently still displeased that Harper yelled at him after hitting a home run in the 2014 NLDS, threw a fastball to the hip, Harper charged the mound and fists flew as the rest of the Giants – including catcher Buster Posey initially held back as if behind invisible ropes.
Jeff Samardzija was the one Giants player who had Harper in his sights. He sprinted over the dugout rail and had a balled fist trained on Harper’s jaw before he collided with Giants first baseman Michael Morse – a knocking of heads that put Morse on the disabled list with a concussion that likely will end his career.
Oddly enough, Samardzija was the nearest body to Harper when his foot slipped on first base Saturday night. Harper had hit a ground ball to the right side and first baseman Ryder Jones made a lunging stop before racing to the bag. He did a credible job of clearing the lane for Harper, and Samardzija, who had raced over to cover, also veered away from a potential collision.
There was no malice. Only moisture. The Nationals delayed the first pitch for a half-hour and had the field tarped under partly sunny skies because of an approaching thunderstorm. With a split doubleheader looming Sunday, the last thing these teams wanted was to start Saturday’s game and lose both starting pitchers to a lengthy delay after two or three innings.
So they waited three hours before the storm could pass and the field could be prepped.
Harper’s loss will be felt by a team that is on pace to win 97 games yet will enter October as nobody’s favorite because of the historic dominance that has happened at Dodger Stadium this season.
The Nationals are seeking to avenge their NLDS loss to the Dodgers last year in a series that went to a decisive fifth game, and a one-run loss when Clayton Kershaw came out of the bullpen to record the final two outs.
It was the latest October disappointment for the Nationals’ Dusty Baker, who has become the Greg Norman of major league managers, toothpick and wristbands included.
Baker, 68, has managed eight teams to the postseason but is still chasing his first ring as a skipper; his only pennant came with the 2002 Giants, who came so tantalizingly close before he took the ball from Russ Ortiz in Game 6 at Anaheim and watched the Angels brush past him that night and the next.
He was the Cubs’ manager in 2003 for the Bartman game. He was the Reds’ manager in 2012 when the Giants rattled off three consecutive elimination wins in Cincinnati. Yet the Nationals did not see an October inadequacy when they picked him to take them to the next level.
During Baker’s two years between jobs, Giants manager Bruce Bochy passed him on the all-time managerial victories list. This season, with the Giants off in a ditch, Baker is set to pass him once more.
Baker entered Saturday night with 1834 wins in 22 seasons – one short of matching Bochy and Lou Piniella for 14th on the all-time list. Of the 13 managers ahead of them, only Gene Mauch is not in the Hall of Fame.
There’s a good chance Baker passes Bochy in this series. His best pitcher, Max Scherzer, will take the mound against Chris Stratton for Game 1 of Sunday’s doubleheader, which was pushed up to 10:05 a.m. PDT so the Nationals can clear the ballpark between games. Game 2 (Matt Moore vs. A.J. Cole) will begin at 4:05 p.m. PDT.
It means the Giants will have a late night flight to Miami before their series opener there on Monday. And they won’t have a rested starter to take the ball on Wednesday. They could use Matt Cain or Albert Suarez to run the first leg of a bullpen game.
Joe Panik hit a solo home run in the first inning but the Giants offense once again struggled against Edwin Jackson, whose fastball and slider also proved puzzling when he was with the San Diego Padres. Samardzija gave up two runs on three hits in the first inning, and then Adam Lind hit an RBI double in the sixth as the Nationals stopped his three-start win streak. Samardzija threw 120 pitches in six innings.
The Giants activated right-hander Mark Melancon (right forearm pronator strain) from the disabled list and placed infielder Miguel Gomez (knee) on the 10-day DL. Melancon pitched the eighth – his first game since June 27 – and he hit 93 mph while pitching around a hit in a scoreless inning. Melancon struck out one and his other outs came on a nubber to the mound and a pop-up.
The Giants and Nationals are allowed to add a 26th man to the roster for Game 2 on Sunday. Relievers on the 40-man roster include Derek Law, Steven Okert and Reyes Moronta.
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