PHILADELPHIA — Rain was falling when the Washington Nationals arrived at Citizens Bank Park on Monday, but that was almost a given at this point. Their weekend was defined by hours upon hours of rain delays, interspersed with innings upon innings of soggy baseball. Sunday’s game, postponed to Thursday, is now being threatened by Hurricane Florence. This team has not seen the sun shine upon it kindly in some time, literally and figuratively.
But as the Nationals settled into the visitors’ clubhouse Monday, the rain eased up. The forecast looked clear. For the first time in days — and probably the last time, too, judging by the forecast — a game looked likely to start on time. Then the Philadelphia Phillies’ grounds crew pulled up the tarp, revealing a field that looked something like freshly tilled farmland. They had not put the tarp on the field Friday, when rain drenched the area as the Phillies played in New York.
Rain soaked the area all weekend, so the tarp sat on a wet field that never had a chance to dry. By the time the rain cleared Monday afternoon, the grounds crew did not have enough time to dry the field using traditional methods, and the Phillies acknowledged the possibility that the scheduled 7:05 p.m. start might need to be delayed despite the weather being clear. By 7:10 p.m., word spread. The game was postponed, to be played as part of a true doubleheader starting at 3:05 p.m. Tuesday. If the games are played, Erick Fedde will pitch the first game and Tanner Roark the second. The forecast for Tuesday includes a 90 percent chance of rain.
“The field wasn’t tarped Friday night because we were supposed to get a very small amount of rain. If you tarp the field 24 hours a day, it will turn brown and it will die, so it’s an on-off situation,” said Howard Smith, a Phillies senior official. “We didn’t tarp it Friday night. In retrospect, had I known it was going to be this much rain, we would have tarped it. We didn’t, damage was done, and now we’re just playing catch-up.”
By “playing catch-up,” Smith meant “blowtorching the field with an emergency fleet of blowtorches attached to propane tanks sitting in wheelbarrows being pushed slowly across the infield.” The Phillies did not keep blowtorches on hand. This was a recent idea aimed at drying out the top layer of dirt enough that they could rake the field and add drying agent.
“It’s actually working,” said Smith, inspiring questions about what ideas the Phillies were not willing to try, if they had adopted this one with some measure of skepticism.
As word trickled through the Nationals clubhouse — the inhabitants of which are no longer surprised by much at all — those in it began sharing stories of field-drying methods from the old days. General Manager Mike Rizzo talked about his minor league days, when teams would pour gasoline on the field and light it on fire, an approach Manager Dave Martinez said he had watched, too. Martinez admitted some skepticism about that approach, given that teams would bring fire hoses to then spray down those infields set alight. But apparently the process worked.
“I’ve seen helicopters come down,” Martinez added, referring to a process by which the whirring blades of hovering helicopters would be used to blow-dry drenched fields. Other tried and true methods include a roof.
“At this point, we keep Major League Baseball apprised of the situation,” Smith said. “They know we’re dealing with a very wet field.”
At about 6 p.m., Martinez, Rizzo, and assistant general manager Bob Miller walked out onto the field to meet Phillies Manager Gabe Kapler, the umpires and members of the grounds crew. Martinez said they could tell immediately the field was soft, the blowtorches effective only in creating a thin crust that hadn’t penetrated to dry the layers below. But both sides agreed to wait 45 minutes before making any decisions.
“We gave them some extra time to see what they could do,” Martinez said. “I could see two or three innings trying to play and that field just becoming a big, big, bigger mess.”
At various points, Nationals players stepped on the field and expressed their skepticism. Stephen Strasburg touched a toe down and tilted his head to the side. Adam Eaton flashed a look of relative terror and later described the field as “cake” and “pudding,” a nuanced take.
Umpire Hunter Wendelstedt wanted official player input, so eventually Nationals player representative Max Scherzer charged out of the dugout to meet the brain trust. Phillies outfielder Rhys Hoskins came out, too.
“Hoskins and I, we both stepped on it and said this is unplayable. And talking to the grounds crew they just didn’t think there was going to be enough time to get the field at a playable condition,” Scherzer said. “We both looked at each other and said, ‘If we started tonight and somebody got hurt, we would both feel pretty guilty about doing that.’ ”
“I think everybody saw the flamethrowers,” Hoskins said.
Now, as predictions for Hurricane Florence solidify suspicions that the hurricane will not only put Thursday’s game in jeopardy, but make it nearly impossible for the Nationals to travel to Atlanta for a series this weekend — and could make it impossible to play that series at all — the Nationals must hope they can get both games in Tuesday. The forecast is as bleak as they have had in the past few days, which says a lot, and could foretell a great deal of waiting and frustration.
“Exactly,” said Martinez, prompted with that notion. “But like I said, for the safety of players on both teams, I didn’t want to put our players out there … everyone agreed. So we’ll go back and try again [Tuesday].”
By the time the Nationals dressed and walked out to the bus, the grounds crew had wheeled out the propane tanks and were blowtorching the field again. They hope to get it playable by the time these teams return Tuesday morning, which is around the time the rain is supposed to begin again.
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