Saturday Night Fever
“I feel like we were just destined to win that game, some way, somehow.”
Those words came from Dan Haren, maybe the most unlikely of heroes from a game full of them, saturated with storylines from both dugouts.
Saturday night was supposed to be about Bryce Harper, about unwritten baseball rules, about the rising tension between the Nationals and the Braves as they battled through the dog days of summer. But amidst a bizarre game in which two of the best young pitchers in baseball each failed to escape the second inning, it became a story of a true team effort in which 21 of the 25 men on the Washington roster played a role. In the end, the Nationals prevailed after 15 innings and nearly five-and-a-half hours, by a final of 8-7.
While any 15-inning affair will naturally be referred to most commonly as a marathon, this division rivalry felt more like a long distance relay race, with one reliever handing the baton to the next, over and over again. In all, 18 different pitchers were used by the two clubs – nine each – including the starters, each club’s entire seven-man bullpen, and two more starters to close it out.
Along the way, Washington set a number of records. The 15 innings matched the longest game in Nationals history, equaling the 2009 season finale, a 2-1 win over none other than the Braves at Turner Field. The five-hour, 29-minute affair was the lengthiest in terms of time elapsed. Meanwhile, the 19 strikeouts compiled by the Washington bullpen shattered the all-time Major League mark, at least as far back as anyone can be sure. The records for such a stat only date back to 1971, to which point the highest total ever compiled by a relief staff in a single game was 16. But considering the way the sport had evolved, with increased strikeout rates and higher bullpen usage, it’s hard to imagine any club amassing a comparable total in any previous era.
Following Stephen Strasburg’s second-inning ejection, Tanner Roark was the first Nationals reliever to answer the call, entering a 4-2 game and providing four innings of one-hit, scoreless relief with six strikeouts. Drew Storen tossed a perfect seventh inning, striking out the side. Ian Krol rebounded from a tough Friday night outing to put up two more scoreless frames in extra innings, and Craig Stammen followed a two-inning stint Friday night with a 55-pitch, three-inning scoreless stretch to get the game to the 15th inning.
Of course, in the midst of the impressive relief outings, the Braves tied the game in the ninth, making all of the extra pomp and circumstance necessary in the first place. But neither team would score again until the 15th inning, when Adam LaRoche punished a hanging breaking ball from Kris Medlen for a moonshot to right field, the ball searing through the mist at Turner Field before coming to rest in the bleachers, a dozen rows deep, giving the Nationals the lead once more.
That left the game to Haren, summoned from the bullpen to make his first relief appearance since 2004. Haren had thrown his routine side work prior to the game, tossing 30-35 pitches, which he followed with an upper body workout. But when Strasburg’s evening was cut short, several hours earlier, he offered up his services, should they be needed. They were.
“I’m proud of him for even doing that,” said Randy Knorr, who took over as manager when Davey Johnson was ejected along with Strasburg. “A lot of guys wouldn’t even have gone down there after throwing a bullpen.”
Haren allowed a single, but that was all, striking out Jordan Schafer flailing at a splitter, his bat sent cartwheeling towards the Braves dugout to end the game. That netted Haren first Major League save, and only his second as a professional, the other coming more than 12 years prior as a member of the New Jersey Cardinals of the Short-season New York Penn League on July 15, 2001 against the Lowell Spinners.
“I’m only supposed to do media every five days,” Haren joked as the huddle approached his locker after 1 a.m. local time.
In the end, the Nationals went home with a big road victory in Atlanta. Their reward. Both clubs get a whopping 12 hours and 46 minutes between the final out and the first pitch on Sunday afternoon. Haren summed it up best when all was said and done.
“Five-hour games are fine when you win them. But when you lose them, they really stink.”