August is the prime month for baseball. Forget April, when ballparks are still chilly and damp in many places; forget November, when the “October Classic” is now concluded, often amid threats of below-freezing temperatures and snowfall, in a travesty of conditions for arguably the most important games of the season.
But for the true fan the most important games are the ones he or she attends, usually on bright sunlit afternoons or balmy, gentle evenings. These are typically home games of the local team (as the classic baseball anthem proclaims, “if they don’t win it’s a shame”). And in that spirit, having not been to a game in a couple of seasons (!), I went online as a Washington Post PostPoints member last week and snagged a discount ticket to last night’s Nationals vs. Braves game. It was the perfect choice, because I knew I’d not return disappointed. The Nationals are a club I’ve been following for several seasons, but especially last year, when they muscled into the pennant race by virtue of getting one young star pitcher back after Tommy John surgery, bring up the sensational teenage hitter Bryce Harper, and molding a young roster peppered with just enough veterans into a confident, skilled unit. The luxury of being surrounded by local media information about “my” team is something I’d not enjoyed for years, when my exile from Boston found me a long-time long-distance Sox fan, after the Braves’ exile from Boston had already left me to follow their exploits via the occasional Milwaukee Journal picked up that the out-of-town newsstand in Harvard Square, and then via the Atlanta Constitution. Even all the current media information does not compensate for not being around where talk about the local team is everywhere “in the air.” But I still root for the Braves, albeit somewhat less intensely than I do for the Sox. So last night I knew I’d be happy with either winner.
The Metro ride, thanks in no small part to Jane’s willingness to chauffeur me to and from the station (her willingness did not extend to wanting to pay good money to sit in a ball park for the three-plus hours that games now consume, never mind watch batting practice), was a breeze. A somewhat costly breeze, but still . . . it seriously beats the minimum $30 parking lot slot plus gas that driving entails. The walk from Metro Navy Yard station to Nationals Ballpark entry gate is 2 ½ long blocks, but I made it by five minutes after the gates opened. I was determined to make the most of this.
When I arrived the Braves had just begun taking batting practice. I was wearing no logo apparel from either team, in my aspiration for neutrality, but instead had donned my “Night Baseball” golf shirt from the Phillips Collection. Appropriately Midnight Blue, it refers to a painting by Marjorie Phillips, wife of Duncan Phillips, founder of the Phillips Collection gallery here in DC. The art depicts a scene from the early era of night baseball at Griffith Stadium, where the old Washington Senators played. People are allowed to go down to the front of the seats, right behind the dugouts, to watch batting practice, and so I did. The way it works is that the batter stands in a cage around home plate so that mis-hit balls don’t go far. The batting practice pitcher stands behind a protective screen in front of the pitcher’s mound and lobs balls at about ¾ speed (still probably faster and more accurately than most of us “civilians” could throw) so the hitters can get in some good practice swings. Each hitter gets five swings at a time. The way the Braves work it is that separate contingents of about four players take “BP” one at a time. Each player gets five or six units of five balls each, in rotation. Then the next group takes over. The eight starters comprise the first two groups. Then the subs get their swats, maybe only three or four units of five balls. The atmosphere is relaxed, and lots is going on at the same time. Players and coaches chat near the cage. The bullpen pitchers and coaches jog or shag flies in the outfield. PR people are setting up the pregame ceremonies. VIPs are walking around near the dugouts talking to players and coaches. Ex-closer for the Braves and Sox, Billy Wagner, signs a few balls and shirts for fans; he came up for the day from his home in Crozet, VA with his two sons to watch the game.
I have entered the stadium at the main gate, a large plaza with open access to the left field seats. Unlike older stadiums such as the sacred Fenway Park, the entry is not through a kind of “lobby” under the stands, then up a runway into the bright green rectangle of light that lands you in the grandstands. Here it’s all open until you decide to walk through the wide, well-lit concourse that sits at the level of the outside ground. You don’t have to climb if you have grandstand seats. The field itself is below the outside grade. Eventually I decide to cruise the concourse, gravitating toward my seat, which is on the first base side. There are many food vendors, offering a wide array of fairly good food, albeit at the usual high prices. The beer stands sell premium draft (even Sam Adams is available) as well as the usual Bud Lite and Miller Lite and Heineken. Past my section down the right field line is another open plaza where ribs and barbecue are being smoked. The smell of the charcoal and the meat is mouthwatering, very tempting. However, I’ve eaten at home, and limit myself to a large serving of soft ice cream, which is mysteriously called “two scoops” although it spirals right out of the machine as usual, no scooping involved. I thought of the old ballpark ice cream in Boston (“Hey ice cream here!”) , a Neapolitan brick of real H. P. Hood and Sons ice cream, frozen very hard, with a little double-ended wooden spoon in a box. You had to let it soften for a while or that spoon would crack into pieces along the grain.
When I entered the park, proffering my printed-out ticket for its bar code to be scanned, I picked up a free “scorecard” booklet with the lineups, numbers, and chart to score the game. I bet not one fan in a hundred does that any more. I used to score games that I listened to on the radio in a big scorebook, as well as the ones I saw in person. I’d take the scorecard home, erase the scoring marks, and re-use the card to score a game or two on the radio. They had names like Danny Litwhiler, Sibbi Sisti, Phil Masi, Birdie Tebbets, Rudy York, Sam Mele. This night, I don’t even need the scorecard, because the new huge digital scoreboard informs me of all the stats, all the nuances of each play. The Post will summarize the game in a box score and recount each at bat in every half-inning in which a run was scored.
When I find my seat I am very pleased. It’s in row U, which is surprisingly far down toward the field. The section (135) is about halfway between first base and the point at which the right field line begins to run parallel to the wall of the stands. The section is angled in slightly, so that when I look straight ahead from my seat I am looking at the pitcher’s mound sort of over the first baseman’s shoulder. It’s way too close to the field to be under cover, and there are tropical looking rainclouds, but I feel only 3 or 4 drops all night.
The game begins. The Nationals’ best pitcher of 2013, Jordan Zimmermann, is on the mound. For the Braves it’s Kris Medlen. A year ago he was the hottest pitcher in baseball; inserted into the starting rotation after the All-Star break, he went 10-1, with a 1.57 ERA. Going into tonight’s game this year he has pitched the same number of innings but is 8-10 with a 3.85 ERA. Nevertheless, he’s been effective lately, and shows it by getting the first eleven Nationals he faces out. Meanwhile, Zimmermann is uncharacteristically uncertain of his pitch location. He falls behind the count with many hitters, puts the leadoff runner on base every inning for the first four (double, double, single, walk). He gets ahead of batters 0-2 and then lets them wiggle out to 2-2 or 3-2. Nevertheless, he only pays for it in the first and fourth innings. In the first Freddy Freeman, a guy who looks like the archetypal power hitter at the plate, singles to right to convert Jason Heyward’s double. In the fourth, Medlen himself comes up with three on and none out, and on the first pitch cracks a drive that ends up being a sac fly, caught at the warning track. After a strikeout and another single Freddie Freeman comes up again, sacks jammed, two out. He whiffs on a breaking pitch set up by Zimmerman’s mid-90s fastball, and is so frustrated by having looked for the wrong pitch that he slams both helmet and bat to the ground in a fury.
Medlen, meanwhile, dispatches hitters rapidly and economically. Everything about him is concise: he has a short, easy delivery, he works quickly, he gets ahead of hitters and tries to finish them off, he changes speeds well (he struck out Harper in the first with a 75-mph curve after setting him up with a 91 mph fastball, about as fast as he gets). But with two out in the fourth his command changes as suddenly as if somebody threw a switch. He walks Harper on five pitches, and then falls behind Werth 2-0. Werth deposits the next pitch, a fastball out over the middle, several rows deep in the right-center field stands. The line score now reads ATL 2-7-0; WAS 2-1-0.
Such an imbalance surely offends the Baseball Gods. While the Braves have racked up seven hits, and the Nats have just broken up a perfect game, each team has two runs. The fourth inning, however, turns out to be Zimmermann’s last. He throws 88 pitches in that time, and is done. Medlen goes on for three more, and only needs 96 to get that far. The Braves, however, fail to execute a difficult inning-ending double play in the seventh, and a Nats run scores on the FC to balance Justin Upton’s dinger in the top of the frame. Medlen seems destined for a no-decision when the seventh inning ends with the game tied at three and the hit totals standing 10-3 Atlanta.
In the eighth, however, Davy Johnson gives the Baseball Gods a chance. He keeps in Ryan Mattheus, a reliever seeking redemption after a mediocre year and injuries. Mattheus gets the first two guys, but then gives up a double and a walk. Two on, two out, and Johnson brings in rookie Ian Krol (2.66 ERA, 20.1 IP, 16K, 1-0), leaves Tyler Cipppard (1.99 ERA, 49.2 IP, 53K, 6-2) in the pen. Krol takes four batters to get that last out. A single plates a run and leaves runners on first and third. Justin Upton smashes one of those nasty doubles that screams down the foul line, hits fair, bounces into the corner, and makes the left fielder chase it a little after he finally arrives on the scene. Both runners score. Jason Heyward, using the huge stride of his impossibly long legs, hoofs it all the way home from first and wouldn’t even have needed to slide, though he does. Suddenly the Braves have 13 hits and enough runs to justify them.
Craig Kimbrel, possessor of the best K/IP ratio in the history of baseball, makes it a little more interesting than he has to in the ninth, but the game ends 6-3. Braves fans have a happy Metro ride home; Nationals fans wonder what happened to last year’s promise, and start thinking about next year’s needed revival. I find myself doing a bit of each.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2013