On Tuesday, Gerardo Parra danced with Juan Soto in the Washington Nationals’ dugout. On Wednesday, he danced with Matt Adams, hand in hand, doing everything but a twirl. But Thursday, on the Fourth of July, Parra just danced around the bases.
Right now, from his role as team dance maestro and source of joy to his infrequent but valuable time on the field, Parra is the off-the-junk-heap symbol of a Nats team that thinks baseball is the most jubilant, carefree, jump-up-and-dance game in the world, especially when you’re on a 26-10 hot streak. Yes, the worry-free, highflying, giddy-happy Nats, who ended Thursday holding the first of two National League wild-card spots at 45-41. Those Nats.
On Independence Day, Parra was freed from the pine for one afternoon to do his Adam Eaton impression — bat second and play right field. He hammed up the part with a double off the top of the left field fence, a double off the scoreboard in right, one run and two RBI in a 5-2 win to complete a three-game sweep of the Miami Marlins.
Parra can also do a good impression of a left-handed hitting first baseman (Adams), if necessary, as well as a fine facsimile of a strong-armed center fielder (Victor Robles). If asked to be a left-handed pinch hitter, he just imitates himself.
But for all his versatility — and Parra is a gentleman with 1,285 hits, two Gold Gloves and, as recently as last season in Colorado, a $10 million salary — the role he plays best is instigator of innocent joy. Talk about a team that needed it — and got it.
Parra is normally the Nats’ 25th man, the least likely fellow to get in a game, but he is the central ingredient in Nationals Dance Party, the celebration line that awaits every home run hitter — but always in the dugout, as Manager Dave Martinez prefers, never on the field where it might show up or motivate foes.
Parra invented the dance line — in which he is always the last person to exchange dance steps with the hero. Heck, Parra is a dance line. The whole deal is intended to be ridiculous, part boast but also self-mocking. It’s silly, just like Parra’s walk-up song — “Baby Shark,” a ditty for toddlers — that has the crowd snapping its arms like sharks as he comes to the plate. Metallica it’s not.
With Parra inciting them, the Nats jiggle, wiggle, salsa or, if it’s Brian Dozier, do some twerking. Kurt Suzuki did a wonderfully bad hula after pretending to shoot the curl by surfing through a “tube” of his teammates. The Nats don’t have a best dancer. That defeats the point. “We’re all the best,” Robles said.
On Thursday, after a Fernando Rodney save in which the oldest man in baseball — by three years — touched 99 mph, the Nats practically danced off the field, winners of eight out of nine. And, at that moment, a team in a playoff spot.
“I promise you we make the playoffs,” Parra said in a grinning TV interview.
Swallow, chew and digest. You can wait many years to enjoy an unexpected six-week baseball feast such as this. The Nats have munched on some weak teams, but, in all, they have thumped a representative bunch.
Standings change every time you blink. But the idea that the dead Nats of late May could be in a playoff spot by the Fourth of July is incredible, bordering on ridiculous. Back then, national pundits counseled the team to consider trading Max Scherzer — and everybody else in sight — by the July 31 deadline because the Nats were so bad they should just blow up their roster and slink away in shame.
Now, in 41 days, the Nats ended their game Thursday having gained a net total of 88 games against the other 14 teams in the National League. In the majors, only the Los Angeles Dodgers have won more games than the Nats during this time. As a tip-off that these healthy Nats probably have legs, only Los Angeles has stomped its foes by more (plus-67 run-differential) than the Nats (plus-61).
Of course the Nats have won because Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg rank first and second in the NL in strikeouts, Patrick Corbin is 7-5 with a 3.55 ERA, and tricky, speed-changing Aníbal (“Invisi-bal”) Sánchez has a 2.14 ERA in his past seven starts. Anthony Rendon has 20 homers in just 72 games, a sign he may have 40-homer years ahead. Juan Soto, 20, has a .946 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, and Sean Doolittle has saved just about everything, including, maybe, Martinez’s job.
But Parra is the best current symbol of this team because he epitomizes its bench. And that bench has saved this season.
On Opening Day, first baseman Adams, utility hitter Howie Kendrick and catcher Suzuki were not in the lineup. And Parra hadn’t been released by the San Francisco Giants, making him, literally, free to the Nats except maybe for meal money.
These four fellows have gotten 601 at-bats this season. Go on, guess how many homers and RBI they have combined. Guess high. No, higher than that. Sorry, you’re wrong. Maybe you got “39 homers,” but you didn’t say “134 RBI.” If you wonder why the Nats’ offense hasn’t missed Bryce Harper too much, it’s them.
Parra carries a double symbolism because he is not only an emblem of the bench, but he is also one of the main catalysts of what, at this point, can only be called “team chemistry” aboard a club that had 15 players on Thursday’s roster who played little or not at all for the 2018 Nats.
“Sometimes there are just people who help bring a team together. Parra’s been in that role — unselfish, lifts the mood,” said senior adviser to the general manager Bob Boone, himself an eight-time Gold Glove catcher. “We thought the clubhouse was going to be solid. And it is.”
For that, there are many reasons, such as players who have been natural leaders with the Nats or at other stops — Kendrick, Scherzer, Eaton, Dozier, Suzuki, Yan Gomes and, in their ways, the tough Trea Turner and the relaxed Rendon.
But Parra, who hit a grand slam to beat the Dodgers on May 11, his second day in a Nats uniform, then hit a three-run homer to help beat the New York Mets five days later, arrived with a kind of “click.” He was a last-ditch prayer of a pickup. He knew it and ate it up. He could sit for a week, then get three hits. But just as importantly he seemed to embody Martinez’s preferred mood: Would you guys please relax, have fun and just try to play the game right because you’re really good.
“Believe in yourself and be happy,” Parra said. “Head up. Something good happens every day. Just enjoy the moment.” Excuse me, can I get the book rights?
That attitude may or may not work under October pressure. But it seems to help when you’re 19-31, your Nos. 2-3-4-5 hitters are hurt and your bullpen is egregious.
“When we were 19-31, it was eye-opening,” Suzuki said. “With the new players, we knew it was going to take some time for us to click as a group.”
Since then, it has been Scherzer pitching seven scoreless innings with a broken nose and black eye. Or Turner returning to the lineup with an index finger on his throwing hand that he still can’t make into a fist. Or Corbin pitching seven one-run innings and ignoring a 76-minute mid-start rain delay this week when he felt horribly distraught the day after the death of his close friend Tyler Skaggs of the Los Angeles Angels.
The schedule gets harder after the all-star break. Streaks like 26-10 eventually turn into normal seasons with long stretches of .500 until you catch fire again.
The dancing may be less frequent then. But whatever you do, don’t let it stop.