KANSAS CITY, Mo. — They stood along the third base line at Kaufmann Stadium, at the very end of the line for alphabetical reasons only. The stadium lights glimmered off Bryce Harper’s gold spikes. Stephen Strasburg forgot to remove his cap when the announcer called his name. Gio Gonzalez grinned. Somewhere in the stadium, owner Ted Lerner watched in person. A stealth bomber zoomed over the park. For the first time, three Washington Nationals stood together at the All-Star Game.
“We were all just soaking it in,” Strasburg said. “It was amazing.”
By the end of Tuesday night, the Nationals’ contingent had each made contributions, in their own styles, to the National League’s 8-0 thumping of the American League. Gonzalez, the left-hander who is tied for the major league lead in wins, fired perhaps the best inning all night.
Strasburg added another scoreless frame, if not as dominant.
And Harper, the youngest position player ever to appear in an All-Star Game, did what he usually does. He stood out in ways no one would expect.
He walked and took second base on a fly ball to left field, only to be caught in a rundown. He then lost a routine fly ball in the lights and watched it plop behind him, then he struck out in his second at-bat.
“I wasn’t nervous at all,” Harper said. “I don’t really get nervous anymore. I’ve been in that moment so many times, I don’t really get nervous.”
By the time Harper entered the game, the National League had already decided the result.
It bashed American League ace Justin Verlander for five runs in the first inning and cruised to the most lopsided victory since 1983, when the American League won, 13-3.
The victory gave home-field advantage in the World Series to the NL, which could affect the Nationals.
They have the best record in the National League. The team with home-field advantage has won 24 of the past 31 World Series and nine consecutive Game 7s. Take a moment to dream, if you’d like, and imagine Nationals Park hosting the first or decisive game of the World Series.
Their starters helped the cause. Gonzalez entered in the third inning, replacing starter Matt Cain and staked to a 5-0 lead. Before his first pitch, Gonzalez took a deep breath, in tribute to Ian Desmond.
The Nationals’ all-star shortstop had to pull out of the game with a strained oblique, but he frequently visits Gonzalez during starts to tell him to slow down and breathe.
“I had him in the back of my mind,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez had no reason to worry about Tuesday’s game. He struck out Texas Rangers catcher Mike Napoli on four pitches, touching 95 mph with his fastball and finishing him off with an outside curveball, which Napoli swung over. Gonzalez induced a lazy fly to left by Curtis Granderson and then Derek Jeter bounced the first pitch he saw to second base. Gonzalez needed 11 pitches, seven of them strikes, for a 1-2-3 inning.
NL Manager Tony La Russa stacked the Nationals’ two starters. Strasburg entered in the fourth with a juicy set of matchups: Robinson Cano, Josh Hamilton and Jose Bautista were due up. “Insane!” Strasburg later tweeted.
“I love the challenge,” Strasburg said.
He took the mound with an eight-run lead after Melky Cabrera, the game’s MVP, roped a two-run homer.
Strasburg started out throwing his fastball at 95 mph and reached 98. Cano led off the inning with a sharp single up the middle, and Strasburg erased him when Hamilton one-hopped into a double play. He pitched carefully around Bautista, who hit a home run against him earlier this year in Toronto, and walked him.
Strasburg escaped the inning after Prince Fielder lashed a line drive to left and Ryan Braun made a running catch.
As Strasburg and Gonzalez pitched, Harper bided his time for five innings, hanging next Chipper Jones, at 40 the oldest player in the game.
“He’s just an unbelievable guy,” Harper said. “He told me no matter how much fame and fortune you get, don’t change your game, your mentality. He said, ‘Be Bryce.’ That’s what I’m going to take with me.”
Harper entered the game as a pinch-hitter, leading off the fifth inning against Los Angeles Angels right-hander Jered Weaver, the major league ERA leader at 1.96.
The stadium lights glimmered off Harper’s gold spikes. He worked the count full, and then took a close ball inside to walk.
On first base, Fielder gave him a playful nudge. Fielder flirted with the Nationals in free agency, and he later said Harper’s presence helped make Washington an attractive destination.
Harper watched as Buster Posey crunched a deep fly ball to left field. Harper rushed back to first base and knelt in a sprinter’s stance.
When the ball nestled into Josh Hamilton’s glove, Harper bolted, hell-bent, and reached second base standing up. If a 19-year-old can create a signature style in 63 games, the play captured it.
The next moment, too, captured a part of the Harper package. David Wright bounced a chopper up the middle, and Weaver snagged it over his head. Harper had risked the ball sneaking past through the infield, and Weaver caught him in a rundown between second and third.
Harper remained in the game as the left fielder, and the adventure continued. Mike Napoli lofted a fly ball to left field. Harper ran in a few steps, staring skyward, and then stopped and held out his arms. With every eye in baseball on him, the ball had blended into the hazy twilight and, for his urgent purposes, disappeared. The ball plopped about 10 feet behind him, and Napoli trotted into second with a double.
“Just lost it,” Harper said. “What are you going to do? It didn’t hit me in the head, so I think I’m okay.”
Harper played the rest of the game and took one more at-bat. Rookie Oakland A’s closer Ryan Cook struck out Harper looking at a 96-mph fastball on the inside corner. Harper said he was usually terrible in all-star showcases as an amateur. He had rough moments Tuesday night, but there will be more chances.
“As long as he keeps working hard, he’s going to be here many times,” Strasburg said. “There’s going to be some young buck coming up that’s going to be looking at him like he’s looking at guys like Matt Holliday and all these guys.”
About two hours before the first pitch, the National League all-stars rearranged couches in their clubhouse to form a half-circle. Chipper Jones stepped into the front of the room and delivered a speech, a pep talk, captured by MLB cameras, before his eighth and final All-Star Game.
“Look, you guys belong here,” Jones told the assembled stars. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re 19” — Jones grinned and pointed at Harper — “or you’re 40, like me. We are all equals here.”