By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 23, 2008
CHICAGO, Aug. 22 -- At 9 a.m. Friday, just five hours before the start of a game he would later call the best of his life, an alarm clock ordered Willie Harris out of bed. He felt groggy. Like the rest of the Washington Nationals, he needed sleep, not daylight.
The previous night, the team had chartered out of Philadelphia and arrived at the team hotel in Chicago just before 2 a.m. Harris couldn't fall asleep until 3. So it was that the Nationals' first obstacle in advance of an afternoon game at Wrigley Field rose right along with the sun.
Even during batting practice Friday morning, Harris couldn't shake the sluggishness.
He spotted teammate Lastings Milledge and said, "Dude, I've got nothing today."
And that's how the surprise began. Hours later, after a 13-5 victory over the Cubs, the whole scenario was worth retelling not because it preceded a downfall, but because it preceded one of Washington's liveliest performances of the year. In mid-game, the Nationals broke from their forecasted slumber -- and a 4-0 deficit -- with authority and power and, above all virtues, Harris.
Washington's left fielder homered twice and amassed six RBI, tying a career high. His sixth-inning grand slam turned a deficit into a lead and energized an entire clubhouse. "Awesome," winning pitcher John Lannan called the grand slam. "That was unbelievable. Words can't say how great that was."
"All before this game," Harris later said, "I didn't feel well. I was trying to talk myself up to get ready for the game, but here I was, I'm dying."
He saw no easy remedy, either. He decided against coffee -- "that's only for old dudes," he said -- but grabbed eggs and potatoes for breakfast. When rain delayed the start time by 62 minutes, he sat down for a clubhouse game of cards. "I didn't go to sleep or anything, but just being around the guys, that picked me up," Harris said.
In turn, Harris picked up an entire team, winners of two straight. Harris's two home runs, which included a two-run shot in the ninth, produced the first multi-homer game of his career -- all the more notable given that Harris, a major leaguer since 2001, entered the year with just three multi-home run seasons. Entering 2008, he had a total of seven home runs. His 12 this year share the team lead. And perhaps no home run generated a more tangible lift than his grand slam.
Indeed, early in the afternoon, the Nationals looked every bit like a team pulled too early from bed. They didn't get a hit against Chicago starter Jason Marquis until the fourth. Lannan, Washington's starter, couldn't find home plate, and after 35 pitches -- including two walks to start the second -- he'd recorded just three outs.
"I didn't think he'd make it through five," Manager Manny Acta said.
Lannan persisted. His command picked up, and so did his pace. By the top of sixth inning, when the Nationals tied their season mark for most runs in an inning (six), Lannan was still in the game. And he watched, thrilled about how it all came together. How Emilio Bonifacio started with an infield single. How Marquis then walked the next two batters on 10 pitches. How a sacrifice fly by Milledge and a double by Ronnie Belliard cut the deficit. And, finally, how Harris, facing Cubs reliever Neal Cotts, capped the explosion by turning on an inside pitch, connecting, watching, and, finally, trotting.
"We were down 4-0," Harris said, "but we just kept fighting. Yeah, it was tough for us, but this is our job, and this is what we have to do. It wasn't just tough for me; it was tough for everybody in here. But everybody came out today, and we battled all day long."
They didn't relent. Lannan pitched into the seventh inning, exiting with his pitch count at just 84. Any concern about how Washington would hold a tight lead was rendered irrelevant by more offense. With the bases loaded in the eighth, pinch hitter Aaron Boone clubbed a double to right-center, scoring three more. In the ninth, Belliard and Harris homered (the torrid Belliard is now 18 for 31 since Aug. 14) and the Nationals added three more.
The Nationals' 13 runs were the second most they've scored all year, and the four-run deficit they overcame tied for their biggest comeback of the season. The only downside was, the celebration called for brevity.
"I think everybody is going to bed early today," Acta said, "because they need it."