Jose Lobaton brought his vintage Nintendo gaming system to Nationals Park on Sunday and hooked it up to a television in the home clubhouse. Several Washington Nationals players convened around the video game while the other televisions showed a football game being played in London. Gio Gonzalez, Sunday’s starting pitcher, sat front and center, controller in hand, engrossed in eight-bit heaven.
The Nationals were a relaxed group heading into the finale of one of the most successful regular seasons in franchise history. The division had been clinched for three weeks. Home-field advantage for the National League Division Series was sealed a week ago. They have known they are playing Game 1 of the NLDS against the Chicago Cubs on Friday at Nationals Park for four days, though they found out Sunday the game would start at 7:31 p.m.
“We had a good season,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said. “We’re trying to approach a great season.”
Washington’s 11-8 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates (75-87) in the longest nine-inning game in club history at 4 hours 22 minutes was, therefore, a final live simulation exercise on a sun-splashed afternoon before the games matter again. But there was more to the affair. With a victory, Washington would have matched a franchise record with 98 wins. The Nationals settled for 97-65, good for the second-best record in franchise history and the fourth-best record in the majors in 2017, though all that matters in these parts is how they fare in the postseason.
There were also individual chapters to complete and moments to cherish. The first came before the game started, when Jayson Werth sprinted out to his station in left field to an ovation for likely his final regular season game in a Nationals uniform. Werth tipped his hat to the crowd before he started playing catch, swelling the roar of gratitude.
Before the bottom of the first inning, a video montage chronicling Werth’s seven years in Washington, from when he arrived as a clean-shaven 31-year-old while the industry snickered at his $126 million contract to a grizzled and bearded clubhouse leader, played on the glitchy video board. A little later, after Anthony Rendon hit a three-run home run, Werth stepped into the batter’s box to another ovation.
“That was probably the nicest thing any organization’s done for me,” Werth said. “So I appreciate that. And thank the Nationals. They’ve been a class organization from start to finish here. And it’s not over — we’ve still got a lot of games to play. I’m not ruling out that I won’t be back here next year. But nothing’s guaranteed in this game.”
An under-the-weather Gonzalez set out to finish his resurgent season strong, but a five-run first inning spoiled that quest. Gonzalez’s ERA ballooned from 2.75 to 2.96 after the 39-pitch dud. The left-hander allowed a sixth run in the fifth inning. That was the final batter he faced, ending his last outing of the regular season after 4⅓ innings. He yielded the six runs on seven hits, walked three and had two strikeouts. He was treated to a standing ovation, more for his year than his outing.
“Took a couple steps back,” Gonzalez said. “That’s what I wanted to do, right? That’s why I wanted to pitch the last game of the season.”
Gonzalez limped to the finish, failing to pitch into the sixth inning in four of his final five starts, but he was reliable again this season. He didn’t miss a start and logged 201 innings. His 2.96 ERA ranked fifth in the National League. He figures to take the mound next to start Game 3 at Wrigley Field on Oct. 9.
While Gonzalez stumbled, Bryce Harper’s regular season ended on a positive note. The right fielder walked and crushed two line-drive singles in five plate appearances. He hit the first line drive the other way off Pirates left-hander Steven Brault. It traveled 111 mph. The second was recorded at 114 mph in the seventh. He followed it by sprinting from first to home, his helmet flying off his head, to score on Adrian Sanchez’s double. It was the best Harper has looked since he returned from a 42-game absence Tuesday.
Harper was among the five everyday stalwarts Baker removed one by one to maximize individual recognition. Ryan Zimmerman was first, exiting before the start of the fourth inning. Rendon followed the next inning. Daniel Murphy was next, sprinting off the field to avoid the attention. Harper departed before the start of the eighth.
Zimmerman’s remarkable bounce-back season concluded with a .303 batting average to accompany a career-high 36 home runs and 108 RBI. Rendon completed his case for National League MVP, hitting .301 with 25 home runs and 100 RBI to complement his stellar defense at third base. Murphy, the 2016 NL MVP runner-up, batted .322 with 23 home runs. Harper finished his season, an MVP-caliber campaign until he slipped on a wet first base Aug. 12, with a .319 average and 29 home runs.
Werth’s exit was the finale. The 38-year-old franchise cornerstone had been soaking it all in. He tipped his cap a couple of times before innings in left field. He was the only Nationals player standing outside the dugout during “God Bless America” in the seventh inning. He doffed his helmet to another hearty ovation on his walk to the plate. Fans chanted “Jayson! Jayson! Jayson!” before he walloped a flyball to the warning track in center field to finish the day 1 for 4 with a walk.
Werth took his spot in left field in the ninth inning before 20-year-old rookie Victor Robles, appropriately, came out from the dugout to replace him. The crowd boomed again as he jogged off. Werth tipped his cap and hugged Harper outside the dugout.
“When I signed here, it was a joke,” Werth said. “But this place isn’t a joke. This has been one of the best teams in baseball since I signed here, and I’m definitely proud of that. But we need to win.”
He and the Nationals next will take the field Friday. Six months of baseball — Sunday and 161 other games of highs and lows — will be wiped away, and the Nationals will begin anew for the fourth time in six seasons in search of a different ending.
“It’s all in the past,” Harper said. “We got to worry about these next four days. Enjoy that and turn it on when those lights come on.”