Navy Yard shooting a reminder to Nationals, Braves that baseball is ‘just a game’

Monday afternoon at Nationals Park, the normal collided with the surreal. Washington Nationals pitchers dotted the outfield and played catch in the bullpen. Visiting Atlanta Braves players took batting practice in the cage behind the third base dugout. But the flag in center field flew at half-staff, sirens echoed off empty seats and beyond the outfield walls chaos unfolded.

The Nationals postponed their game against the Braves on Monday night in the wake of the shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard, which sits roughly five blocks away from Nationals Park. The game will be made up Tuesday at 1 p.m. as part of a split doubleheader with high stakes in the baseball world, which seemed like a trivial topic Monday afternoon.

“We’ll still be thinking about it tomorrow,” said Nationals right-hander Dan Haren, who was scheduled to pitch Monday. “This is our job, and we’re going to have to come out and play and have to win a baseball game. As inconsequential as that may seem, we’re going to have to come out and do our jobs.”

Bench coach Randy Knorr, who lives two blocks from Nationals Park, awoke Monday morning to sirens. Manager Davey Johnson was headed to the stadium early in the morning before he received a text message telling him to turn on the news and stay home. Haren woke up to a text message from his mother.

“We really didn’t want to play out of respect for the families and everyone involved,” Haren said. “Baseball obviously has to go on at some point, but it’ll probably be a little too quick to come here and have fans come in here and try to get up for a baseball game, because of how bad everyone feels for what happened.”

Once the doubleheader starts Tuesday, the Nationals and Braves will both have much to play for. With two wins, the Braves can clinch the National League East title. The Nationals will try to keep the Braves from celebrating on their home field and stay in the hunt for the NL’s second wild-card spot. The Nationals are five games behind the Cincinnati Reds with 13 to play, long odds they can overcome only with a flurry of victories.

The Nationals and Braves will both keep their rotations in line. Haren will start Game 1 of Tuesday’s doubleheader against Braves lefty Mike Minor. Rookie right-hander Tanner Roark will face veteran Freddy Garcia in the nightcap. Wednesday, Alex Wood will start for the Braves.

The Nationals have yet to decide who they will start Wednesday, but all signs point to Ross Ohlendorf, who filled in for Stephen Strasburg on Friday with one run allowed in five innings in a win over Philadelphia. Strasburg threw a bullpen session Monday afternoon as he recovers from irritation in his right forearm, and he remains on track to start Thursday.

Fans with tickets to Monday night’s game can use them for Game 1 Tuesday or exchange them for a ticket of equal or less value this year or for a 2014 game in the lowest tier of the team’s pricing scale.

Both the Nationals and Braves will try to focus on a playoff race and the details of their craft. They know it will be difficult.

“Even when the game is going on, it’s going to be in everybody’s head,” Braves reliever Scott Downs said. “But you have to kind of, the best way possible, block it out and go about the business at hand. Which is for us, luckily, playing baseball. But you’ve got to think about all the other families that are involved and people in town. Tomorrow, we’ll come out, be as prepared as we can be and get ready for a game.”

Players will have to refocus after a day when baseball hardly seemed to matter. The Nationals were “thrilled” to allow D.C. police to use Lot B of Nationals Park as a meeting place for families affected by the shooting. Players spent the afternoon texting each other, searching for any bit of information.

“It’s really scary,” Haren said. “It’s scary what one person or two people can do, just how many lives they can affect. We’re just seeing too many of these things happen. It’s so unfortunate. It’s scary. You just never know when, you just never know why. It really obviously puts things into perspective from a life standpoint.”

“It’s just a game,” Braves third baseman Chris Johnson said. “That’s way more important than baseball — clinching a division, home-field advantage, all that stuff. People lost their lives and their families. We just dedicate this day to them and their families and then tomorrow, hopefully give them a nice little show and play some good baseball.”

Tuesday afternoon, the flag will still be at half-mast, and uncertainty will still dominate the area beyond the outfield walls. On the field, the Nationals and Braves will try to make the surreal feel more normal.

“Anytime you hear about a shooting, you think about the schools, you think about the kids,” Downs said. “You don’t know where it is, but you just think about all the families that are all involved, the fact that we can come out and play a game for a living, blessed to still be breathing. The families and what they’ve gone through — the tragedy they’ve gone through — it’s hard to think about. It’s sad. It’s a sad day, that’s for sure.”

Adam Kilgore covers the Nationals for The Washington Post.
James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010 and, prior to covering the Nationals, covered high school sports across the region.
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