By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 29, 2006 2:45 AM
The cleaning crew started sweeping up debris in the upper deck -- an hour before the game started. Want a beer before you settle into your seat for the first inning? Not possible. The stands shut down 90 minutes prior to first pitch. And that postgame birthday party Ryan Zimmerman had planned? Well, Thursday night became Friday morning, and the newly 22-year-old third baseman could have celebrated with eggs and bacon rather than beers.
Few franchises have had more bizarre days than the Washington Nationals, until recently owned by Major League Baseball, until last year playing in front of dwindling crowds in Montreal. Last night -- er, early this morning, actually -- ranks up there.
The most important point for anyone interested in the National League playoff race is that, at the end of it all, the Washington Nationals beat the Philadelphia Phillies, 3-1, dropping the Phillies two games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers, who lead the wild-card chase.
But to any of the few hundred fans -- most of them vociferously rooting for the Phillies -- who stuck around through a 4-hour, 27-minute rain delay, the experience will be remembered for the wackiness.
"It was like playing in college again," said Zimmerman, who went 2 for 4. "A bunch of people who had been there for a while -- if you know what I mean."
Listening to the tipsy Philly faithful -- and some Nationals' fans, who sang a rendition of "Happy Birthday" to Zimmerman -- it was clear it took a little extra juice to ride this one out. It would have been enough to watch it pour for hours after the scheduled 7:05 p.m. start, wiling away the hours by staring at the banks of empty seats. It would have been enough to say you stayed for the first pitch, which came at 11:32 p.m. or seven minutes after David Nelson belted out the National Anthem, complete with the explosions and fireworks from the upper deck that likely woke up a resident or two on neighboring Capitol Hill.
It would have been enough to watch Nationals President Stan Kasten -- sitting in the box behind home plate with owner Mark Lerner -- holding a sign that read, "Ball Game Today."
But there was plenty left over, even considering those statistics and scenes. Team officials were under severe pressure to get the game in because of Philadelphia's standing in the playoff race, and the fact that, should the Phillies finish in a tie for a playoff spot, they would have to play a playoff game on Monday. If last night's game had been rained out, there was a chance the Phillies would have had to return to Washington and the Nationals would have had to play a game after the scheduled conclusion for a makeup game Monday.
So the two teams played, even though it would in no way help the Nationals avoid finishing last.
"That's just the integrity of the game," Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said. "You go out and compete."
The game followed 4-hour, 53-minute affair that ran 14 innings from the previous night. It came on a day when Robinson -- coming to the conclusion of his 51st season in Major League Baseball -- apparently found out that he will not be asked to be the manager next season, a decision that had been expected for several weeks.
And it came on a night when the daily Presidents Race, a contest between 10-foot tall renditions of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and hapless Teddy Roosevelt, ended in near catastrophe when Jefferson took a massive tumble on the warning track. He wasn't hurt, and thus provided one of the most hilarious moments of a season that, for the Nationals, has been filled with down moments and now will conclude with the end of the line for their Hall of Fame manager.
"I don't know if we'll ever experience that kind of atmosphere again," catcher Brian Schneider said.
As for the baseball, the Nationals won because rookie left-hander Mike O'Connor allowed only an unearned run in his five innings of work, and because relievers Billy Traber, Saul Rivera and Jon Rauch shut out the Phillies the rest of the way. Nationals right fielder Ryan Church hit a solo homer in the second, and Schneider, swinging the bat as well as he has all year, provided the difference with a tie-breaking, two-run single in the bottom of the sixth.
All that meant the Nationals won two of three from the desperate Phillies, who head to Florida for their final series sure to be dragging and likely needing a sweep to have a realistic chance of catching the Dodgers.
Yet it wasn't because their fans gave up. Holding signs -- "We Have a 9 a.m. Class in Philly" -- they cheered and chanted despite the ridiculously late start. When Nationals' mascot Screech approached a group of them, they taunted, "You're no Phanatic!", paying homage to their own mascot, the Phillie Phanatic.
"I asked a couple of them if they had jobs," Schneider said. They assured him they did. They were just calling in sick this morning.
In the end, though, they might have been sick about their team's fading chances. The music, this time, thumped in the Nationals' clubhouse, where the Washington players celebrated their role in sticking it to another team, for fighting against a club that had much more at stake in this game.
Or, maybe, they just celebrated the conclusion of the evening.
"It's over," said Church, slumped at his locker. "Let's go to sleep now."
The clock read 2:25 a.m.