For the rest of this year — and perhaps longer, depending on how this season turns out — the Washington Nationals can simply refer to their 6-5, 16-inning win over Minnesota on Sunday at Nationals Park as “The Twilight Zone Game.”
After this one, the Nats will have a hard time believing that any game is lost until the umpires clear the field and order them home. There is, perhaps, no more powerful feeling that a club can have about itself — its talent, its luck and its future — than that it is never beaten. Such a collective sense of self must be built by deeds, not wished with words. Games like this create it.
“That’s the craziest game I’ve [ever] seen,” said Nats Manager Dusty Baker, who coined the “Twilight Zone” line afterward. “[Coaches] Chris [Speier] and Davey [Lopes] and I, we talked about it. We’ve seen thousands of games. We always say: ‘Go to the ballpark; you always see something you’ve never seen before.’ Well, I certainly hadn’t seen anything like this.”
What was so amazingly improbable to Baker, Lopes and Speier who, combined, have more than 110 seasons of big league time? Let’s cite some reasons in ascending order of insanity.
The Nats won because Bryce Harper tied the score with a pinch-hit homer to lead off the ninth inning. The Nats also won, ironically, because Baker, who had given Harper his only off-day of the season, kept his word and took Harper right back out of the game to get his rest. For the next three hours of this 5-hour-56-minute marathon, that looked like a blunder. Where’s Harper when you need him to bat in the 11th and the 14th?
Who did Baker put in? Deep-bench sub Chris Heisey. Who won the gamer with a walk-off home run in the 16th inning? In this “Twilight Zone,” who else could it be but Heisey. Yes, the man who subbed for the MVP also played hero, just like Harper.
Above all, the Nats won because, down to their last out in the 15th inning and trailing 5-4 with Danny Espinosa on second base, they had no choice but to let reliever Oliver Perez bat for himself. They had no more relievers available because two bullpen pitchers needed a day of rest. And Baker had no more bench players left to pinch-hit for Perez because he had burned Heisey — an extra unnecessary move — to get Harper out of the game.
So Perez hit for himself. In a stunning moment of overkill, the Twins even switched pitchers, bringing in big fireballer Michael Tonkin in relief of rookie Ryan O’Rourke, just to make sure that Perez had absolutely no chance.
Yet on a 1-1 pitch, with no one in the ballpark, including the Nats, expecting a bunt, Perez dropped a beauty down the third base line — perhaps 15 feet up the line and fair by two inches. Twins catcher John Ryan Murphy had to decide whether to let it spin foul, which it might have. But he felt he just had time to grab the ball, spin and end the game by throwing the ball — arrrgghhhh — over the first baseman’s head and down the right field line as Espinosa scored.
“We didn’t know he could bunt,” said Stephen Strasburg, who pitched 7
“I wish I could take that one pitch back [to Dozier],” Strasburg said. But then none of us could have seen one of the wackiest wins we have seen, he was told. “Catch 22,” Strasburg said. “Happy to oblige.” Was that a smile? Actually, the whole Nats clubhouse was packed with them.
“So the bunt was a good idea, I guess. It worked out,” a smiling Perez said in Spanish.
“That game was incredible, amazing,” Harper said. “Ollie puts the pressure on the defense with the bunt. Heisey hits it out. . . . This team is very special. And it’s fun to be a part of. Dusty lets us enjoy this game. . . . That’s where that [comeback] comes from. . . . All the crazy stuff we were doing in the dugout [in extra innings], he lets us do that. . . . This was unreal.”
Perhaps the Nat going most bonkers after the Perez bunt was reliever Jonathan Papelbon, who was jumping and flapping both arms as if attempting to achieve the first unaided human flight.
Before Harper batted, “Dusty told me, ‘Hit a homer. That would be great,’ ” Harper said. Earlier in the day, Baker told Harper he would use him only in a hero spot, when he could make the crowd go nuts. Power of suggestion?
There will be more important games played this year, but few if any will be so bizarre and improbable. Perhaps its incredible nature will even add buoyancy to the Washington season. The Nats are dangerous now. Partly that’s because they have started 14-4 and lead by 3
Certain things — mysterious, almost impossible things — make a team feel differently about its future. The Nats began this season with two gift wins thanks to defensive mistakes by Braves catcher A.J. Pierzynski. Their hitting was supposed to carry them, yet it’s their pitching that leads MLB in ERA.
“We were starting to feel delusional,” Heisey said of the wild late innings. “We hadn’t eaten in a long time.”
Even those fans still in the stands were yelling at Baker, “Come on, man. I’m hungry.”
In the end, everyone finished with a feast.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.