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What was with that crazy rain delay Friday night at Nationals Park?

Members of the Washington Nationals grounds crew squeegee off the tarp during a rain delay Friday. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The Washington Nationals clubhouse was relatively chipper Saturday morning as groggy players filtered in for a doubleheader after a late night Friday. They had waited to start Friday night’s game for 1 hour 20 minutes, played for just more than twenty minutes, then sat for about three more hours before the game was finally postponed. By that time, the rain had stopped.

“We knew it was going to rain,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. “But the Cubs didn’t want to play [a split doubleheader], so that was a big issue. Then they said, ‘You know what? It might stop at midnight. So we’re going to wait around.’ And we did. Then they said it was going to rain again.”

“Played when we shouldn’t have, then did not play when we should have. I, um, I voiced my opinion at the appropriate moment,” Cubs Manager Joe Maddon said. “We wanted to play [Friday] night. We wanted two one-gamers. We waited as long as we did, then the skies were absolutely clear from that moment on. And they said they could not be sure there would not be another pop up, which, I’m beyond an amateur meteorologist, I can see that it wasn’t going to rain anymore. So kind of confusing to us also.”

The whole ordeal defied explanation. Why wait so long if not to play when the rain stopped? Why start the game and burn two starting pitchers when more rain was on the radar?

One of those starting pitchers was Joe Ross, the right-hander making his 2018 debut after 14 long months of rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery. Ross said he didn’t hear until 6:30 p.m. that the game would be delayed. For much of the wait that followed, he didn’t know when the game would start — a decision that was in the hands of Major League Baseball because the Cubs do not return to Nationals Park this season, so these games require more maneuvering to reschedule.

Joe Ross’s Nationals return is cut short by rain

When the game finally did begin at 8:25 p.m., Ross had time to throw 1 2/3 impressive innings before the tarp came out again, at which time Martinez told him, “You were awesome. But you’re done.” Ross, less worried about the risks associated with warming up all over again in his first start back, kept his jacket over his arm for the next 40 minutes before finally conceding.

“I felt good,” Ross said. “It was just frustrating delaying the game and then getting rained out in the second inning. . . . My stuff felt good, but I only threw 25 pitches so it is what it is.”

Ross’s start will not count in any record books because the game will start over Saturday afternoon. Martinez said the Nationals will keep Ross on turn, instead of moving up his next start because he threw so many pitches. At this point in their season, all but mathematically eliminated, they have no reason to push him.

But the Cubs are at a very different point in their season, carrying the best record in the National League with three weeks to go, and that contributed to the length of the second delay. When the evening began, the MLB Players Association discussed options with the player representatives from both teams. Sean Doolittle, not normally a Nationals player representative, served as one for the evening because Max Scherzer was starting Saturday and knew he would leave the park early if the delay dragged on.

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Doolittle, Bryce Harper and Trea Turner spoke with the league and their Cubs counterparts, Kris Bryant and Tommy La Stella, on numerous conference calls and through group text messages. As it was explained to Doolittle, both teams had already been forced to play the maximum number of split doubleheaders allowed by the new collective bargaining agreement — a cap instituted because organizations generally prefer day-night doubleheaders because they get two games’ worth of ticket sales, while players prefer the true doubleheader because they spend less time at the field.

Because both had met their quota, both teams had to consent to another split doubleheader, something Doolittle said the Nationals players were willing to do.

“The Cubs were kind of holding out hope that we were going to catch a window a little bit later. We were like, ‘No. The weather here? Trust us. Once it starts, sometimes it doesn’t stop,’” Doolittle said.

But the Cubs wouldn’t budge, hoping they would be able to get the game in despite the Nationals’ concerns. Those concerns, in part, loomed even larger because of what happened the last time the Nationals delayed a game until late in the evening then started play on a wet field. Harper slipped on first base and suffered a bone bruise to his knee that looked like it could have been much worse.

“Starting the game past midnight on a wet field, that has a lot of people around here really, really uneasy,” Doolittle explained. “I don’t know if it’s in the best interest of player safety.”

Amid the ongoing discussions some time shortly after 11 p.m., the rain stopped. Then the league saw more weather sliding in on the radar and made the decision to play a true doubleheader Saturday.

“I mean, the way the weather could be here, the forecast could change hour to hour. There’s so many moving parts. It took a while to coordinate it,” Doolittle said. “In a situation like that, where both teams have to agree to the same thing — we’re kind of at different points in the season, so there were slightly different modes of thinking at the time. We ended up thinking, I think, what both teams wanted in the first place, which is essentially a doubleheader.”

Scherzer did, indeed, leave the field early to maintain his usual pre-start routines, much like a starting pitcher flies ahead of the team before a late flight. He will start the first game Saturday, while right-hander Jefry Rodriguez will start the second, backed by plenty of innings-eating options including Austin Voth, Kyle McGowin, and others.


Trea Turner SS

Anthony Rendon 3B

Bryce Harper RF

Mark Reynolds 1B

Juan Soto LF

Victor Robles CF

Matt Wieters C

Adrian Sanchez 2B

Max Scherzer P


Daniel Murphy 2B

Tommy La Stella 3B

Anthony Rizzo 1B

Ben Zobrist RF

Albert Almora Jr. CF

Willson Contreras C

Addison Russell SS

Jamie Garcia P

Ian Happ LF

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Nats’ Winterfest returns to Nationals Park for the first time since 2011

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Despite sell-off, Nationals will not get under the competitive balance tax threshold

Mike Rizzo on Dave Martinez returning to Nationals in 2019: ‘I haven’t considered any other scenario’