It was a tough road trip for the Nationals, losing 7 of 10 and playing errorful ball, and that weighs on a club and their locker room. The Nationals, though, with Strasmas on the very near horizon, weren’t interested in playing the dog on Friday night, and brought their business socks to the park. Their opponent: the first place Cincinnati Reds and pitchers Aaron Harang.
It was a sultry night at Nationals Park, with temperatures at gametime well above 90°F, and with humidity making the evening into a heavy, wet mess, it wasn’t surprising that the game would take on a snail’s pace. No one wanted to move too quickly, and the result was a long and slow game that took nearly four hours to play. Aaron Harang struggled in the heat, and in his four innings pitched, he would throw over 95 pitches as the Nats fought him at every turn. ¡Livan! Hernandez would go six full, but throw 100 pitches in a two-run effort. It took everything both teams had to make it to the seventh inning in the damp wet Washington evening in front of a crowd of over 33,000. That’s when the sparks flew.
Livan’s work finished, Tyler “The Vulture” Clippard entered the game and retired the Reds on just 14 pitches, including a pair of strikeouts and with an assist off the fielding skills of Roger Bernadina, taking us to the night’s entertainment. Josh Willingham started the inning with a single, and Roger Bernadina made it a pair of runners when the Reds’ outfielders couldn’t decide who would catch his fly ball to left field, and that brought Ian Desmond to the plate with two on and nobody out. Desmond got the sign to square for bunt, causing several fans in our section to shout at manager Jim Riggleman. He’d miss the first pitch for a strike, and foul off the second, forcing him to abandon the bunt, and on the fifth pitch of the at-bat, sent a single to left, plating the go-ahead run in Willingham. Bernadina would come around on Willie Harris’ sacrifice fly, and that’s where the wheels came off the bus.
What happened next was ponderous, as the loping, bouncing throw came in from left field, Desmond made a break for third. He’d taken a late tag as the throw wasn’t on-line or clear, but it was fielded cleanly by Reds’ catcher Carlos Hernandez, and gunned to waiting third baseman Scott Rolen. Rolen applied the tag as Desmond skidded over the bag to a halt. From where I was, and recognizing there was no replay, it wasn’t an easy call, but the third base umpire called him safe. Enter the hulking, lurking presence of Dusty Baker, toothpick in his lips, from the dugout. Enter also the villainous presence of the night’s crew chief, “Country” Joe West, from across the diamond.
A conference of umpires isn’t a common thing, especially one held at the behest of the opposing manager, and it would be West, the night’s first base umpire, who would signal the inning-ending out that caused what happened next. Nats third base coach Pat Listach objected in some strenuous terms to the call, and Ian Desmond would drop his batting helmet. That was all Joe West needed to see, and he tossed Desmond for his insouciance. Jim Riggleman would come out to argue both, but would fail, as arguing with Country Joe West is a lot like talking with a brick wall: sure the wall may listen, but you’re not going to get anyone movement from it.
Most telling, in the aftermath of the game, was the replay of the Nationals’ play-by-play radio team of the call. While Carpenter and Dibble in the TV booth are notorious “homer” broadcasters, Dave Jageler and Charlie Slowes are much more even-handed. I don’t think before last night I’d ever heard Charlie get upset, and boy was he. While he remained professional, the frustration in his voice was very evident, and he had some fairly unkind things to say about West in the postgame broadcast from Nationals Park. In the end, it wouldn’t matter. Drew Storen and Matt Capps would each pitch an inning of scoreless ball, with the latter drawing his league-leading 18th Save.
The Nationals play the Reds again tonight and Sunday, sending Luis Atilano (5-1) to the mound to face Meeks (4-0) on Saturday and Craig Stammen (1-2) to face Arroyo (5-3) on Sunday. The Nats take Monday off before Strasmas on Tuesday.