By the time it was all over Saturday, by the time 11/2 games were finally complete and everything was back on schedule, the Washington Nationals were nine games over .500 two days after the all-star break, exactly where they were when it began.
The second half of their season began Friday night with a 5-3 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers that concluded Saturday afternoon. Twenty hours after the game began, pinch hitter Matt den Dekker hit a two-run homer to break an eighth-inning tie, his third career home run.
As Saturday afternoon turned to Saturday evening, the memory of den Dekker’s homer faded amid Clayton Kershaw’s mastery in a 4-2 Dodgers win. Kershaw sliced through the Nationals lineup with his curveball, striking out 14 in eight scoreless innings, the most strikeouts any pitcher has had against the Nationals since they moved to D.C. in 2005.
Bryce Harper, victimized for three of Kershaw’s strikeouts, hit a two-run home run in the ninth — his 27th — to account for the Nationals’ runs after the left-hander had departed.
Sift through the chaos of the first game, delayed by faulty lights and completed in gleaming sunshine the next day, and the victory resembled many of the Nationals’ first-half wins: a big hit from an unexpected source in a lineup thick with fill-ins performing well enough to make the most of a difficult situation.
“That’s tough any time there’s things you can’t really control. Obviously you gotta try to stay ready,” den Dekker said. “To get that first win after the all-star break is huge. Took a little longer than expected, so that’s big for us heading to the second half.”
Den Dekker’s homer broke a 3-3 tie established in the sixth. About 13 1/2 hours after Nationals do-it-all right-hander Tanner Roark first warmed up for the top of the sixth inning, he pitched it. He allowed a game-tying home run to Adrian Gonzalez, the first of two hits he would allow over two innings thrown over two days. He struck out three batters, two Friday night, one Saturday. Gonzalez hit two home runs in the game, one Friday night, one Saturday.
Roark pitched a 1-2-3 fifth inning Friday night. He relieved Jordan Zimmermann, who only lasted four innings and 63 pitches, a solid outing cut short by darkness when a bank of lights up the third base line went out at 8:19 p.m. and stayed that way for more than an hour. The delay was too long for Zimmermann to wait, so the Nationals went to Roark.
“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” Zimmermann said Friday. “It’s unfortunate. I felt pretty good tonight, then that happened. It’s just one of those things you can’t explain.”
After Roark’s scoreless fifth inning, the lights went out again. Roark waited 40 minutes, then doubled to lead off the fifth and came around to score on Yunel Escobar’s two-run homer. He warmed up for the sixth. Then the lights went out again.
“It’s a humdinger of a game if you win it,” Nationals Manager Matt Williams said. “If you don’t, it doesn’t feel as good. It doesn’t get any easier from here certainly with the next two guys we have to face.”
The Nationals opened the second half by facing right-hander Mike Bolsinger, then reigning Cy Young award winner Kershaw and All-Star Game starter Zack Greinke. Any big league hitter will tell you that no day spent trying to hit major league pitchers is an easy one — but some days are tougher than others. Kershaw made the second part of Saturday impossible for the Nationals.
Washington starter Doug Fister needed to be perfect to match him, but he was not. His pitches again stayed up, and the Dodgers hit many of them hard. Fister allowed nine hits and four runs in five innings, numbers kept relatively low by line drives hit at people and four flyballs hit by lefties that flew to the warning track in right field.
So Kershaw worked with a lead, attacking the zone and striking out two Nationals an inning through seven. Despite the strikeouts, he pitched efficiently, plowing through the first seven innings in fewer than 90 pitches. He retired 17 of the last 18 batters he faced and allowed three hits.
The Nationals swung and missed 30 times against him, more swings and misses than any pitcher has induced in a game in the past seven years.
“Sometimes you just gotta tip your cap and laugh,” Harper said. “It was pretty impressive by him today.”
As the two-day marathon was nearing its end, the Nationals lost Danny Espinosa to injury, though for how long remains to be seen. He left the game in the eighth inning after he dove awkwardly for a groundball and limped off with a trainer.
Kershaw gave way to Kenley Jansen in the ninth, and D.C. native Emmanuel Burriss, filling in for Espinosa, got his first hit as a member of his hometown team. Then Harper homered, a two-run shot to right.
So thanks to a big swing from an unlikely source about 50 minutes before Saturday’s regularly scheduled game, the Nationals moved to 49-39. By the time the Nationals Park lights came on again in the evening sunlight — and all of them came on this time — the Nationals fell to 49-40. They are nine games over .500 thanks to Kershaw, against whom any amount of light is usually little help. The Nationals have not beaten him since 2010.