After the 49-year wait for the stars to return, after the dark decades of no baseball and the heady years of the bad kind, after the long arc of a new fan base’s coming of age, after all the relentless lobbying and planning, after the fanfests and the galas, after the Futures Game and the celebrity game and the Home Run Derby, after the choir sang the anthem and the Medal of Honor winner tossed the first pitch – after all that, finally, the ball was in Max Scherzer’s hand, and the most star-studded night of baseball in Washington in nearly half a century commenced.
The 89th All-Star Game owed Nationals Park nothing more. It’s mere presence here, after all this time, was enough. And yet, as if out of a sense of obligation to make up for lost time, it delivered a little bit of history, a little bit of drama and a steady and unprecedented stream of long fly balls leaving the yard.
Like some perfect distillation of baseball in 2018 – a slew of strikeouts, peppered with walks and homers – the game wound its way to a fitting climax: After a nine-inning barrage of homers pushed the game to extra innings, Houston Astros teammates Alex Bregman and George Springer hit back-to-back blasts off Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Ross Stripling in the top of the 10th, sending the American League to an 8-6 victory that played out like a miniature, full-speed home run derby.
There were 10 homers on Tuesday night, obliterating a 47-year-old record for a single All-Star Game. In 1971, when six homers were launched, the hitters in question were Johnny Bench, Hank Aaron, Reggie Jackson, Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew and Roberto Clemente. This time, the 10 hitters were Aaron Judge, Mike Trout, Willson Contreras, Trevor Story, Christian Yelich, Jean Segura, Scooter Gennett, Bregman, Springer and Joey Votto. Until Michael Brantley’s sacrifice fly tacked on an insurance run for the AL in the 10th, every run scored in the game had come as the result of a homer.
“You're going to see [all the homers and strikeouts] in the All-Star Game when everybody's throwing max effort,” said Scherzer, the Nationals ace, who started for the NL. “You're just not going to string hits together. The pitchers have too many pitches, we're throwing too hard. The hitters are in a really tough bind in that situation. In an All-Star Game, that's going to happen."
Gennett’s homer, in the bottom of the ninth, had sent the game into extra innings, and Votto’s, the 10th and last of the night, came in the bottom of the 10th and pulled the NL to within two runs. Both will wind up as footnotes. Bregman, who had the game-winner in the top of the 10th, was named the game’s most valuable player.
“He never ceases to amaze me with how controlled he is in the big moments,” Astros Manager A.J. Hinch, who managed the AL squad, said of his third baseman. “Any part of the game, any pitcher, any pressure situation… He obviously loves the moment.”
“I like competing,” said Bregman, who helped the Astros to the World Series title in 2017. “I feel like I’ve been in those situations a lot in two years, and I’ve failed in them probably just as much as I’ve succeeded in them. But the times you fail in those moments gets you better for the next situation.”
Bregman’s all-star MVP trophy, which is named for Ted Williams, completes a great circle of life that has D.C. as its center. Bregman’s grandfather, Stanley, was the general counsel for the Washington Senators in the 1960s and early 1970s and helped bring Williams to the team as its manager. Tuesday night, Bregman said his father “grew up on Ted Williams’s lap.”
“So to see Ted Williams’s [name] on this trophy is pretty special,” Bregman said.
It had been 49 years since the District last hosted a Major League Baseball All-Star Game, 13 years since the Montreal Expos relocated and brought baseball back to the city, 12 years since the Lerner family purchased the team from MLB, 10 years since the opening of Nationals Park and three years since the Nationals were awarded the 2018 All-Star Game.
For the Washington Nationals, a solid year of planning – beginning with a trip to Miami 12 months ago to witness the 2017 game being staged in real-time – culminated in Tuesday night’s extravaganza in front of a sellout crowd of 43,843 fans, at least some of whom had been in attendance at RFK Stadium in 1969.
And it began, fittingly, with Scherzer, the Nationals’ ace, peering in from the mound – famously, with one blue eye and one brown one – and throwing the first pitch at 8:23 p.m.
Freed from the necessity of having to save bullets for later, Scherzer dialed up the intensity and the velocity, as if doing his finest impersonation of a closer.
Facing an American League lineup loaded with mashers, he caught Mookie Betts looking at an 89-mph slider, then blew a 98-mph fastball past Jose Altuve, stalking around the infield like a predatory animal after each. He was one strike away, five different times, from setting down Mike Trout and completing a remarkable trifecta of striking out this generation’s version of Mays, Banks and Mantle.
But Trout fought off a couple of tough pitches and drew a walk at the end of an eight-pitch at-bat. Perhaps losing that battle deflated Scherzer, because J.D. Martinez singled sharply to center. Scherzer got Jose Ramirez to pop up to end the inning, but an inning later, Aaron Judge, the New York Yankees’ sensation and the reigning AL rookie of the year, crushed a 95-mph fastball to left on Scherzer’s second pitch for a homer, as “Bustin’ Loose,” Chuck Brown’s D.C. go-go anthem, blared out of the loudspeakers.
Boston Red Sox lefty Chris Sale, Scherzer’s AL counterpart for the second straight season, was even more electrifying, touching 101 mph with his fastball in his one and only inning of work.
The game played out as a Three True Outcomes clinic – with nearly half of all plate appearances ending in either a strikeout, a walk or a home run.
Every time the bullpen gates swung open and a new pitcher entered the game, he would inevitably come in firing fastballs in the upper-90s and racking up the strikeouts – nine total in the first three innings, 17 by the seventh-inning stretch. The ball wasn’t in play enough to produce any transcendent defensive moments, but every time you looked up another towering home run ball was bending towards the Capitol Dome in the distance beyond left field.
Welcome to baseball in 2018.
By the time Tuesday dawned, all-star week had already gifted Washington such a transcendent baseball moment – with Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper’s furious finish to win the Home Run Derby the night before – so Tuesday needn’t have given much more. And while the home crowd tried to will Harper for an encore Tuesday night, he struck out in both his plate appearances, against Luis Severino and Blake Snell.
For an uncomfortable hour or two, it appeared as if a deflating, water-logged repeat of 1969 was possible. That year, the All-Star Game at RFK Stadium – the last to be held in the District before this one – was postponed to the following afternoon after incessant rain left the dugouts flooded and the field a sloppy mess.
On Tuesday, torrential rain moved through the area shortly after 3 p.m., more than five hours before first pitch, and stayed long enough to leave a sizeable lake in right field. But after it passed, the grounds crew worked feverishly in a sticky, soupy, late-afternoon swelter to ready the field, and the game went off on time and without a hitch, as even a threatened midgame storm never materialized.
Gussied up with red, white and blue bunting along the balconies, framed by a sky that was deep blue at first pitch and ringed with the heavy machinery of urban progress – the cranes and half-built towers of the surrounding neighborhood – Nationals Park perhaps never seemed more alive. It certainly had never been graced with more sheer talent.
Few all-star games had ever featured a sight as awkward as that of Orioles shortstop Manny Machado, with a trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers seemingly moving closer by the hour and (depending upon whom you asked, perhaps even consummated), appearing for what is almost certainly the last time with “Baltimore” across his chest.
When Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp doubled in the second inning, Machado, at shortstop, sauntered over, pulled a smartphone out of his pocket and snapped a selfie with his – presumed – future teammate.
After the strikeouts and the homers, after the fastballs and the fasterballs, after the final out settled into the glove just before midnight, the players jogged off the field and into what’s left of the all-star break, and Washington’s moment – at least this one – had come and gone.
“It was awesome. What an atmosphere,” Scherzer said. “D.C. did it right.”
The second half for the Nationals begins on Friday night, against the Atlanta Braves. They have some catching up to do to ensure Tuesday night does not stand for all time as the highlight for baseball in the nation’s capital in 2018.