For whatever reason, last night was as loose and joyous I’ve seen the Nationals’ clubhouse after a game this season.
Maybe it was the fact that they had just thoroughly out-played one of baseball’s most tradition-rich organizations in that team’s own house. Maybe it was the manner in which the game was won, with the Nats shooting line drives all over Fenway Park and getting fabulous starting pitching and highlight-reel defense. Maybe it was the glimpse-into-the-future performances of Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, who shined oh-so brightly on a dark, damp night in Beantown.
Whatever it was, it was fun to witness.
Music blasted throughout the clubhouse as Rick Ankiel played prankster, getting in between reporters in group interview sessions with Strasburg, Harper and Xavier Nady, trying to distract his teammates as they discussed their efforts in front of the TV cameras.
Harper teased reporters, cracked jokes and recounted tales of Red Sox star David Ortiz jokingly blowing a kiss at him at last year’s All-Star Game, imitating Harper’s Kissgate. “That was pretty funny after everything that happened,” Harper said.
Michael Morse did his best LeBron James impression, standing behind Nady and tossing fistfuls of baby powder into the air.
“It’s an absolute circus right now,” a chuckling Nady said.
Nady’s spectacular racing grab at the wall in right field might have gotten overshadowed by the efforts of Strasburg and Harper, but it was without a doubt one of the top defensive efforts of the Nats’ young season. The play - which saw Nady sprint back on the ball, turn just as he got to the wall and casually toss his glove in the air, corralling Adrian Gonzalez’s deep fly - was so impressive that he had nearly the entire team waiting for him at the top step of Washington’s dugout when he came in.
Second baseman Danny Espinosa said his only thought as Nady made a play at the ball was that he might end up toppling over the short fence and into the Red Sox bullpen, as A’s right fielder Josh Reddick did earlier this season. Nady’s only thought was: How the heck did I just make that catch?
“When I realized it was in my glove, I was kind of shocked myself,” Nady said.
If there’s one takeaway that will stick with me from what we saw last night, it’s that Strasburg, Harper and company seem to rise to the occasion, not shy away from it. Pumped up to play for the first time in Fenway Park, both guys soaked up the moment, but they didn’t let it overwhelm them to any extent.
Harper admitted he was a little riled up in his first at-bat, but played his butt off from then out. He waved to fans, looked throughout the packed stadium and took thrill in the fact he was hitting in the same batter’s box as Ted Williams. He even had Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, and other Red Sox players dishing out compliments to him on the field.
“I’m 19 years old,” Harper said, “so I still look at those guys as the guys I grew up watching. It was pretty unbelievable to see that.”
Strasburg - not surprisingly - showed more tunnel-vision, focusing less on the experience and more on the strike zone. But, after his start, even he talked about how much he enjoyed the night and how the atmosphere increased his adrenaline level, as it did with Harper.
“I always pretty much rise to the occasion,” Harper said. “I love playing in these situations. I feel like everyone does.”
Harper and Strasburg sure do. They were up to the moment, as were Espinosa and Tyler Moore and others who were playing in Fenway for the first time in their careers. And that certainly bodes well for big games down the road, in this season and seasons to come.