By the time the workers jostled it loose, the sun peeked out and the area around second base looked like a small pond. The field wasn’t entirely covered until it was entirely too late. The grounds crew worked on it for an hour and a half, but the game was officially suspended at 4:47 p.m. It had begun at 12:36. The delay lasted longer than the action.
The game will resume Friday at Camden Yards in Baltimore, with the Nationals as the home team, trailing 5-2 in the top of the sixth. The game was suspended instead of called because the field was ruled unplayable because of a “mechanical error,” not the weather. The rule book technicality will soon give the Nationals, still 4-7, a fighting chance to steal a win.
“For me, honestly, it’s part of this 2020 season,” Manager Dave Martinez said of a game derailed by a short burst of rain. “I mean, it really is. There are going to be days when you don’t know what to expect. This is part of it.”
“Obviously the unevenness of the schedule doesn’t help with your routine, your rhythm, on the mound or at the plate,” Rizzo said ahead of Sunday’s mess. “But we’re dealing with it like all the other 29 teams. So that’s nothing we can use as an excuse.”
Before the tarp caught in the roller, leaving the field exposed, Rizzo ticked through each issue facing the Nationals. In no more than 14 minutes, he tried to ease concerns about Max Scherzer, Strasburg and Sean Doolittle, who has been the outlier of an otherwise functioning bullpen.
Rizzo expects Scherzer to return from a tweaked hamstring to face the Mets in New York on Tuesday. Strasburg would not have pitched Sunday if the nerve irritation in his right hand were still lingering, Rizzo explained, but Strasburg later admitted to feeling it in the fifth. And Rizzo said Doolittle needs more reps to come around.
Strasburg, having missed his first two starts, covered 13 of the 16 outs recorded Sunday. That left no high-leverage situations for the bullpen. So the Nationals will have to solve a few pitching issues on the road this week.
“These pitchers just have to pitch,” Rizzo said of Doolittle, though it could have gone for Strasburg, too. “With the short spring training 2.0, they haven’t gotten enough work in to get to where they want to be usually on Aug. 9.”
“To be honest, I felt it,” Strasburg said of the nerve irritation flaring up in the fifth. He shook out his right hand after a pitch before waving off Martinez and an athletic trainer. “I don’t know if it was necessarily fatigue or not having the stamina build up quite yet. But it’s something where I don’t think I’m doing any long-term harm on it. It does have an impact on being able to throw the baseball and being able to commit to pitches.”
Among the pregame procedural questions for Rizzo were a pair of contracts. Rizzo’s expires at the end of this season. Martinez has a club option for 2021 that has yet to be picked up. When asked about Martinez’s status, Rizzo threw his weight behind the manager, suggesting Martinez has earned an extension as a “great representative for the Washington Nationals.”
But when asked about himself, Rizzo said he and ownership have not had any recent discussions. He is no stranger to dragged-out negotiations, having done this with the Lerner family throughout the past decade. In 2018, the last time he was extended, a deal was signed before the first game of the regular season. Now, a fifth of the way through a pandemic season, he continues to wait.
“I’m not worried about it. They’ll take care of it when they deem themselves ready to take care of it,” Rizzo said. “I haven’t given it much thought. My focus is on winning a championship here in 2020. That’s going to be our sole focus going forward.”
That process hit another hitch once Strasburg was knocked around in what had been a scoreless game in the fifth. But that would be the second- or third-most frustrating part of the day. The offense did little aside from a two-run homer by Starlin Castro in the fifth. Then any comeback hopes were dashed once the tarp wouldn’t budge.
As the storm thickened, a dozen grounds crew members dug in and begged the tarp to unfurl. They pushed. They ran in place. They backed the tarp onto the grass and tried to reset, but they had no luck on their second attempt to shield the infield. They would spend the rest of the afternoon covering the soaked dirt in diamond dry. But their efforts, however concentrated, could not rush the field into playable shape.
At the very least, the Nationals avoided a sweep until further notice.
“I told the guys, ‘Hey, pack up; we’re going to New York,’ ” Martinez said. “We’ll get ready to play tomorrow. That’s all we can do.”