MIAMI — As most of the city of Miami rushed to gas stations or packed northbound freeways in preparation for Hurricane Irma, the Washington Nationals and Miami Marlins stayed put to play a baseball game that the Nationals won, 8-1.
If baseball ever truly fades from the top of a major leaguer's list of priorities, you could understand how it might slide to the back of many Nationals' minds Wednesday.
Many of them make their full-time homes in Florida. A handful of others have family in the Dominican Republic. They have loved ones and property within the storm's expected path. For what is probably the first time in major league history, something called "Irma" was the most talked about thing in the visitors' clubhouse in the hours before a game.
"There was a lot on our minds. Not only myself but a lot of players had some family here," said Gio Gonzalez, who threw five scoreless innings in the win. "I was talking to [Marlins catcher] J.T. Realmuto, and I was asking, 'You guys have your family set? You guys ready to go?' That was the main concern was basically everybody's safety, and then we can get back to work."
But while Gonzalez, Trea Turner, Michael A. Taylor, Adam Lind, Daniel Murphy, Jose Lobaton and others who live in Florida likely would be torn as they climbed onto the plane that was set to leave late Wednesday night for home, they would do so having all but finished the Marlins' playoff hopes with six wins in six games against them since the beginning of last week.
After Wednesday's victory, the Nationals' magic number to win the National League East is six — the smallest magic number in baseball. In those two series sweeps, the Nationals outscored their closest division foe 40-9.
Nothing like that seemed to matter to Gonzalez as he sat in the corner before the game, chatting with teammates about the storm, glancing up at the clubhouse television showing local coverage of the storm and rubbing his hands through his hair distractedly now and then. Gonzalez, a Miami native who nearly pitched an emotional no-hitter in his previous outing here, has family and friends certain to be affected by the storm.
"It's weird to see a night game and get going in Miami knowing what's coming," Gonzalez said. "It was just trying to take emotion out of the game again. But it's tough. Too much going on."
Gonzalez seemed to fight off distraction into the fourth when he suddenly found himself with the bases loaded and no one out. But Gonzalez and battled around the base runners and what he felt was an unfavorable strike zone to escape unscathed. By that time, opposing hitters were hitting .138 against him with runners in scoring position.
Unlike most of his starts this season, however, Gonzalez's pitch count climbed as he struggled to stay ahead of hitters. He crossed the 100-pitch threshold in the fifth and did so while facing Giancarlo Stanton with one out and two on. Gonzalez got him to ground into an inning-ending double play. As they swept the Marlins in back-to-back series, the Nationals held Stanton to two hits in 20 at-bats. Those two hits were both home runs.
Gonzalez's ERA fell to 2.50, third lowest in the majors behind Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer. Interestingly, the 2018 option in the lefty's contract vests when he reaches 180 innings. He finished the evening at 179⅔ .
Meanwhile, distracted or not, the other Nationals pummeled Marlins rookie Dillon Peters for two runs on five hits and a walk the first time through the order, and despite a few egregious base running errors early, the offense continued to add.
Ryan Zimmerman was 3 for 5 with a home run, his 31st, which landed in the second deck in right-center field. South Floridian Turner, whose family lives in Lake Worth near West Palm Beach, went 2 for 4 and reached base three times. Fort Lauderdale native Taylor, whose mother will weather the storm at their home about 30 miles inland, hit his 14th homer and reached base three times.
"It's been a little hectic, trying to get everything situated for my place and my family," Taylor said. "But I'm kind of glad I'm here right now. I'm close to home, and it gives me a chance to help out a little bit before I leave."
His baseball efforts helped to give the Nationals plenty of breathing room from start to finish, enough breathing room that Manager Dusty Baker could avoid using any of the big three in the back of his bullpen. The Nationals are in a stretch of 21 games in 20 days that does not end until Monday. Any break yields dividends.
So under normal circumstances, a series sweep like this likely would send the Nationals home in jubilation. But now, when the whole push for a playoff spot has felt like a foregone conclusion for weeks, and the safety of the Nationals' friends and family is anything but, many would fly home uneasy. Fortunate as they were to be leaving Miami with the division title closer than ever, they were far more fortunate to be headed home before the storm, though many likely would find their minds wandering to those they had to leave behind.