They came to watch Max Scherzer and Bryce Harper compete on the big stage against baseball’s best, to watch American League stars rarely seen in these parts like Aaron Judge and Mike Trout do their thing, to withstand brutal D.C. July humidity and dodge a few raindrops and to perhaps watch the National League actually win a 21st century All-Star Game for a change.
What local baseball fans got in the first Midsummer Classic in the District of Columbia in 49 years was a reminder of what Major League Baseball circa 2018 looks like: lots of homers and lots of strikeouts, with some late drama and extra-inning thrills thrown in for good measure.
All but one run in the AL’s 8-6, 10-inning victory on South Capitol Street came via a home run, a record 10 of them in total. Scooter Gennett’s two-run blast off Edwin Díaz in the bottom of the ninth brough the NL back from the dead to tie the game, but back-to-back shots by Astros teammates Alex Bregman and George Springer off Dodgers right-hander Ross Stripling in the top of the 10th flipped the script again and propelled the AL to yet another All-Star victory.
“Today was a crazy game,” said Cubs catcher Willson Contreras, who produced one of the home runs. “I think it has to be one of the best in All-Star Game, MLB history. Same with the Home Run Derby last night. It was a special moment. I think everyone enjoyed this as much as we did.”
This was the AL’s sixth consecutive win and 18th in the last 22 All-Star Games, an extended run of dominance for the junior circuit, which now leads the all-time matchup 44-43-2.
One night after a rousing Home Run Derby in which Harper stole the show in front of his home crowd, 10 other All-Stars showed off their power strokes in front of an overflow crowd of 43,843 that also watched the two pitching staffs combine to strike out 25 batters. The 10 homers destroyed the previous All-Star record of six.
“Standard operation nowadays, right?” AL manager A.J. Hinch said. “We’re going to homer and punch out as an industry. In the beginning of the game, it was: ‘Are we going to have a game other than a homer?’ And at the end, it was: ‘Are we going to have enough pitching to get out of this mess?’”
Jean Segura’s three-run homer to left in the top of the eighth - moments after his foul pop was dropped by Joey Votto for an error along the first base dugout railing - looked like it would be the biggest of all, breaking what briefly was a 2-2 deadlock. It left many in the crowd who were openly rooting for the NL and booing the AL grumbling, but even the boos weren’t all that forceful for an exhibition game that has no bearing on anything else that will take place the rest of the season.
Little did they realize there would still be four more home runs hit before the game was over: Gennett’s dramatic game-tying blast with one out in the bottom of the ninth, then the Bregman and Springer consecutive shots in the top of the 10th to give the game back to the AL, then Votto’s leadoff homer off J.A. Happ in the bottom of the 10th that proved to be too little, too late.
“To be able to be on the field, let alone be able to hit the go-ahead homer is ... I don’t know,” said Bregman, game MVP and grandson of the Washington Senators’ general counsel in the late 1960s and early 1970s. “I’m on cloud nine.”
Dark clouds were on everyone’s minds all day, with a major line of storms due to hit the entire East Coast at some point. It indeed hit with a vengeance in mid-afternoon, turning the sky nearly black, flooding the home dugout, and leaving much of the outfield and warning track under water.
But sure enough the skies cleared in the 5 p.m. hour, the field drained remarkably fast and both teams were still able to take a condensed round of batting practice before the game began on-time at 8:23 p.m. following a stirring pregame ceremony featuring 30 recipients of the Medal of Honor introduced one by one to an appreciative crowd of fans and All-Stars alike.
Once Scherzer took the mound and Mookie Betts stepped into the box, though, it was all business. Displaying exactly the amount of intensity you’d expect from one of the most competitive pitchers in the world, the Nationals ace had the crowd in the palm of his hand after striking out Betts on an 87 mph cutter and Jose Altuve on a 98 mph fastball, then getting two strikes on Mike Trout.
With 43,843 pleading for their hometown hero to strike out the most fearsome 1-2-3 he’s ever likely to face in succession, Scherzer succumbed and misfired on his 3-2 pitch to Trout, who drew the walk.
“I was pumped,” the three-time Cy Young Award winner said. “The adrenaline was flowing. I really wanted to strike him out. I was throwing pitches I thought could get it, but he put a great battle on me and unfortunately I walked him. I’d love to do it again.”
J.D. Martinez followed Trout’s with a sharp single to center, and suddenly Scherzer was in a jam with runners on the corners.
He calmly got out of it, though, getting José Ramírez to pop up to end a 19-pitch top of the first. With Jacob deGrom warming in the bullpen, there was some question in the stands (and the press box) whether that would be it for Scherzer. There was no question in the dugout: Max was coming back out for another inning.
“I knew I was throwing two,” he said.
Alas, two pitches into the top of the second Scherzer was yelling at himself after serving up a towering home run to Aaron Judge that cleared the left field bullpen, gave the AL a 1-0 lead and represented the first run the right-hander had allowed in five career All-Star appearances.
“I threw a fastball up, and I hit my spot,” Scherzer said. “I hit the glove. It’s just, he’s 6-foot-7. You’ve got to throw it high. I was like: ‘Man, I felt like I threw that high.’ But you’ve got to go higher than high against him.”
Scherzer bounced right back from the blast, getting three quick outs, two via strikeout, to cap off his night. He struck out four in two innings and hit 98 mph on the radar gun multiple times, but he departed with his team trailing 1-0.
That deficit became 2-0 in the third when Trout homered off deGrom, merely the latest midsummer highlight for the best player in the sport. Trout’s career All-Star batting numbers: 7-for-14 with two homers and five extra-base hits.
Keeping with the evening’s theme, the NL responded with its own solo homer in the bottom of the third, Contreras pouncing on the first pitch he saw from Blake Snell and lining it over the left field fence.
That cut the deficit to 2-1, and that’s where it stayed for quite a while. Neither lineup could string together enough hits to mount a sustained rally, a scene all too familiar to fans in D.C. this season.
That included Harper, who had a chance with a runner in scoring position in the bottom of the second but struck out on three straight pitches from Yankees ace Luis Severino, the first and last strikes coming on nasty sliders.
Harper got one more at-bat, this time against Snell in the bottom of the fourth. And in a scene not unfamiliar this season, he battled to a full count, then took a borderline 3-2 pitch that appeared to be just off the plate but was called strike three by plate umpire Ted Barrett. Harper, who for a moment thought he had drawn the walk, quietly expressed some frustration and then retreated to the dugout after what proved to be his final at-bat of the night.
The NL did tie the game in the seventh, with another solo homer, this one by Trevor Story off Charlie Morton. And just for good measure, they added yet another one in the eighth (Christian Yelich off Morton). Segura’s three-run blast seemed to turn the tide, but merely teased a crowd that was due for more power displays by the All-Stars.
“It was crazy,” Bregman said. “It was a lot of fun.”