This time, the sun was the star of the game.
You wouldn’t think that one routine flyball, lost in the sun, could make so much difference. But late in September, you want to know that baseball doesn’t hate you, that you’re going to get your share of the breaks and that there’s no celestial conspiracy.
On Sunday, the Nationals lost to the Brewers because both Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth lost balls in the brutal September sun fields in center and right field at Nationals Park. That frustration punctuated 10 tough, nerve-testing days: Bad breaks and sloppy play took turns foiling the Nats as they went 3-6 and saw their division lead over the Braves shrink from 81 / 2 games to 41 / 2. In that span, umpires twice made awful calls that cost them runs in one-run losses. Closer Tyler Clippard picked up two ninth-inning defeats. And Sunday, the Nats missed those two easy flyballs in the sky.
On Monday afternoon, in a tight game, with the Nats ahead 2-1 in the fourth inning against a power-packed Brewers team that had won 25 of its previous 32 games, Werth hit a routine fly to center field that should have ended a two-on, two-out threat.
Instead, Brewers center fielder Carlos Gomez looked much like Harper and Werth had the previous day: frozen, befuddled, blinded and helpless. Despite Gomez’s last-second dive, Werth’s fly bounced away for a two-run “double.” In a blink, so to speak, the game changed. After Brewers starter Marco Estrada issued a rattled walk, the Nats pulled a double steal. On the next pitch, Ryan Zimmerman launched a three-run homer into the first row of the deep right-center field bleachers for a 7-1 Nats lead. The rout was on. The Nats won, 12-2. But one flyball, with help from 93 million miles away, was the key.
“The next time I came to bat, their catcher [Jonathan Lucroy] said to me, ‘That seems kind of fair. We got the break yesterday,’ ” Zimmerman said.
In late September, that’s all you want. Your share of the breaks, proof that you’re not fate’s designated patsy for this season. Now, whatever weight the previous 10 days had laid on the Nationals seems to have been lifted. Against two talented and desperate teams — the vast payroll Dodgers and the scalding Brewers — the Nats went 4-3.
“That was a huge game for us. The Brewers have momentum. Their hitters are hot and they smell [Cardinals] blood in the water,” said Zimmerman, who ended with three hits and four RBI to back the victorious pitching of Jordan Zimmermann, now 12-8, who allowed only one run and four hits in 62 / 3 innings.
“That was a nice laugher to go on the road,” Manager Davey Johnson said.
It was probably more than that. Johnson sees no signs that his team is the kind that could go off the rails in the last days of a pennant race. A couple of bad breaks or tough losses, he claims, “won’t affect this club.” That would make them unique.
This victory was probably the win that makes the Nats’ lead in the National League East unassailable: five up on Atlanta with nine to play. We’ll never be able to prove the point. Partly, it’s math, but mostly it’s momentum and pennant race mystery. But the last piece of the puzzle was a turn in what ballplayers always watch: luck.
As one of the Nats pointed out, the home plate ump, Marvin Hudson, was the same ump who made a terrible call in the Atlanta series sweep that put the Nats on the bad foot and got Johnson his only ejection. Now they get a good break with Hudson behind the plate. That may sound odd, but it’s what ballplayers have always watched. No, that NL East lead isn’t “safe.” It’s never safe in baseball. But with the Nats magic number down to five, this is about as close as it gets.
Now the Nats head on the road for six games with their rotation set exactly as Johnson wants it: Three lefties against the Phils (Ross Detwiler, John Lannan and 20-game winner Gio Gonzalez), then three righties against the Cardinals in St. Louis. If the season goes to the last three home games in Washington against the Phils, “We’ll have the three lefties ready for them again,” Johnson said. You can’t plan it cleaner than that.
Zimmermann’s start was the latest puzzle piece to fall in place for the Nats. In August, Zimmermann was often too strong, lost his fastball mechanics and threw his slider so hard that it was sometimes a much less effective 90-mph cutter.
“Jordan’s back now,” Johnson said after seeing Zimmermann’s past four starts produce a 2.19 ERA. Gonzalez’s past five starts show a 0.79 ERA, Detwiler’s past four have been 1.88 and Edwin Jackson allowed the Brewers just one run in eight innings in this series. The rotation, worrisome at the end of August, has shaped up in timely fashion. “I like where we’re at,” Johnson said.
The back of the bullpen is also being sorted out. Clippard pitched the eighth in this mop-up game and Drew Storen the ninth. That doesn’t mean they’re back to their 2011 roles, but it’s probably trending that way and presumably should.
“Clip’s still throwing really fine. He’s had a little rough spell. Gets down on himself,” Johnson said before later adding, “It’s a pretty good problem to have. I hate changing roles. Somebody gets the lesser role and thinks I don’t like ’em or believe in ’em and that’s not true. Clip’s done a great job all year and Storen’s throwing the hell out of the ball right now. Everything doesn’t have to have a name on it.”
But some things need names. Harper calls the hazard in the Nats Park outfield this time of year “The Sun Monster.” When Werth’s potential inning-ending flyball headed to Gomez in the fourth inning, the Nats were starting to show signs of a tense team. Cleanup man Adam LaRoche, usually the club’s coolest veteran, had twice swung at 3-0 pitches with two men on base and popped them both straight up for rally-killing outs.
When Werth’s ball landed, uncaught, the Nats led 4-1. Minutes later, it was 7-1. The Nats could hit the road sure that luck was on their side, or at least not against them. As Harper’s brother Bryan tweeted seconds after Gomez’s miss: “SunMonster. NATITUDE!”
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/