As midnight neared, the sparse crowd sitting in their soaked seats, in their soggy ponchos, watching a game that was supposed to end hours ago, Bryce Harper slowed going down the first base line and pointed into the Washington Nationals’ rain-slicked dugout.
Harper was looking at a crowd of celebrating teammates, who had all just watched him smack a 413-foot, go-ahead home run in the seventh inning of the Nationals’ second game of the day. That held as the game-winning hit in the Nationals’ 6-5 win Saturday night, which finished off a doubleheader sweep of the Chicago Cubs, which meant that hours and hours of rain-soaked baseball somehow tilted in their favor.
In the first game of the doubleheader, Scherzer gave up three runs and struck out 11 to secure his National League-leading 17th win and first complete game since April 9. The Nationals took that game, 10-3, and Scherzer, working on his third straight NL Cy Young award, struck out 10 or more hitters for the 16th time this season.
The second game started at 9 p.m. and ended at 1:42 a.m., after an 89-minute rain delay, after Anthony Rendon paced the Nationals with a solo home run and RBI double, after Harper won it with his 32nd homer of the season, and after closer Sean Doolittle returned from a foot injury, rode in on the team’s new bullpen cart, and secured the final two outs of the eighth to help the bullpen close out the win with no more than 100 fans left in the ballpark.
So at the center of it all was the Nationals’ two stars, Scherzer on the mound and Harper at the plate, pausing the team’s downward slide to twice beat the first-place Cubs and make a whole lot of waiting worth something.
“They were big,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said of Scherzer’s and Harper’s contributions to bookend the day. “I’m proud of the boys, all of them, they played through some awful weather and they battled for two games and then through the wee hours of the morning. Really proud of all of them.”
It did stop pouring for a stretch Saturday, long enough for nine consecutive innings to be played at Nationals Park, long enough for Scherzer to mow through the Chicago Cubs as if he were trying to leave before the second storm began.
Friday’s rain drenched Nationals Park and led to more than four hours of delays, 23 minutes of baseball that will never count and, after much confusion and debate, a late-night postponement that set up Saturday’s doubleheader. But the rain kept coming, and coming, and then the doubleheader was delayed, too. And so was Scherzer’s 30th start of the season. And so was the Nationals’ second look at an outfield of Juan Soto, Victor Robles and Bryce Harper, who took the field together at 5:13 p.m., more than two hours behind schedule.
This outfield trio has been anticipated since Robles was called up earlier this week, even if Harper’s impending free agency could soon make it an unrealized dream. All together, Harper, Soto and Robles have been on earth for 65 years. Harper is 25 years old and will be the Nationals’ centerpiece for at least another 20 games. Soto is 19 and could very well win the National League’s rookie of the year award. Robles is 21 and, after an early-season elbow injury, once again announced himself as the Nationals’ most intriguing prospect.
With Soto and Robles, the Nationals have two good reasons to believe that a Harper departure wouldn’t suck all the star power out of their outfield. But with Soto, Robles and Harper in the same lineup, however long that lasts, the Nationals have an umbrella of power and patience and swagger and speed.
Robles made his first two starts of 2018 on Saturday and the outfield was productive from the start. Harper walked in the first inning and, two batters later, Soto chopped a two-run single under the glove of Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo. Harper then walked four more times on Saturday before he put the Nationals ahead with that two-run seventh-inning home run. Robles, still looking to break through with his bat, was 0 for 6 with a walk across the two games.
“I kind of was joking — I saw Soto and Robles out there and I called them two young spike bucks, and I called Harper an elk,” Martinez said after the first game. “That’s what it was kind of like watching those three guys out there. It was a lot of fun.”
The Nationals brought in another run in the first inning of the first game, and that was almost enough for Scherzer. The righty retired 15 straight batters between the first and the sixth. He threw a five-pitch second, a 10-pitch fourth and struck out two in the fifth before the Nationals added five runs an inning later. He is dominating on the mound once again, from spring to summer and well into Saturday, when he handcuffed the Cubs beneath a bed of gray clouds before working into a ninth-inning jam.
Two runs scored as Scherzer’s pitch count climbed to 105. Martinez went out to talk to him, and Scherzer remained in the game to face Kris Bryant with runners on first and second. Fans chanted “Let’s go Max!” between each pitch and, with the count 1-2, Scherzer reached back for a fastball that flew out of his right hand at 94 mph.
“[Martinez] asked what I wanted to do, and I said I wanted to finish it,” Scherzer said. “I knew how much I got in the tank. I had plenty in the tank.”
When he did end it, when Bryant’s bat whipped through the zone and found nothing but air, a big cheer coursed through the ballpark and into the cool September night. After all that rain, and with more on the way, a waterlogged weekend had its moment.
And then it had a second moment four hours later, with the crack of Harper’s light-brown bat, as Saturday night became Sunday morning and it was time to dry off and go home.