WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – This wasn’t the first time Darren Baker suited up for a major league spring training game, nor was it the first time he did so for a Nationals game against an Astros club managed by his father. It wasn’t even the first time he helped lead the Nats to an exhibition victory over his dad, because his eighth-inning sacrifice fly one year ago accounted for the winning run.
But none of that could compare to what transpired in the top of the ninth today at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, when Darren Baker hit a game-tying grand slam to spark the Nationals to an eight-run rally and an 11-7 victory that brought out all the emotions from everyone who was participating and watching on both sides of the equation.
“It was like an out-of-body experience,” Darren said.
“I love my son,” Dusty said, “but I hate to lose.”
This was the third time this spring the Nationals called Darren Baker up from minor league camp as an extra player for a Grapefruit League game, but the first time for a game against the Astros. When it happened last year, Davey Martinez had the young second baseman take the lineup card out to home plate to exchange it with his unsuspecting father, leading to an emotional embrace between the two.
One key person wasn’t there to witness that moment, though: Melissa Baker: Dusty’s wife and Darren’s mother, who was back home in California. This time, she was in attendance, wearing a curly W cap in support of her son.
“I know this is really special for her,” Darren said.
Darren Baker entered the game in the bottom of the seventh, replacing Luis García at second base. The 24-year-old came up to bat in the top of the eighth and lined a single to center, prompting Martinez to look to his counterpart in the opposing dugout, mimic a left-handed swing and say: “He looks like me!”
That moment alone would’ve satisfied everyone, but it was only the precursor to what happened in the top of the ninth. Trailing 7-3 when the inning began, the Nationals loaded the bases with three straight singles off Devin Conn, a 25-year-old right-hander who had a 3.12 ERA and seven saves in 42 games for Houston’s Double-A and Triple-A affiliates last season.
Up stepped Baker, with a chance to at least keep the rally going. He drove Conn’s third pitch down the left field line and watched it carry over the wall for a game-tying grand slam.
“He threw me a good slider the first one, then I took another slider and I kind of knew a fastball was coming there,” Darren said. “I’d take my chances with a fastball. I don’t know, just trying to hit something hard, and it happened to go out of the park.”
In the opposing dugout, the Astros’ 73-year-old manager wasn’t entirely sure how to react.
“I knew he was going to make contact, because he doesn’t strike out,” Dusty said. “I was just hoping when that ball went up that it would just be a sacrifice fly. I would have been happy with that. He could get an RBI, and we’d get the win. …
“I didn’t know whether to be a proud papa or an angry papa, but boy that was a nightmare ninth inning. We couldn’t get anybody out.”
No, they couldn’t. The Nationals went on to score four more runs before the inning was over, putting up an eight-spot to cruise to a come-from-behind win.
Darren has never been deemed a high-ranking prospect, but he has made steady progress up the organizational ladder and made the most of his opportunities. Drafted in the 10th round in 2021 out of Cal, the 180-pound second baseman hit .333/.375/.407 in 22 professional games that summer in the low minor leagues, then .280/.343/.365 in 105 games between High-A Wilmington and Double-A Harrisburg last season. He was selected to represent the Nationals in the All-Star Futures Game at Dodger Stadium, then in the Arizona Fall League.
He figures to return to Harrisburg to begin this year but could continue to force the issue and work his way up. Experiences like the one he got today only help.
“It makes a big difference,” Darren said. “I think I might be more used to that kind of environment, maybe, than the minor league area, just because I’ve been around it more. I feel really comfortable.”
He certainly felt comfortable rounding third this afternoon, looking into the Astros dugout to see his father’s reaction.
“He didn’t want to look at me,” Darren said. “He didn’t want to speak to me after the game, so I had to run down the third base line. He said he’ll call me later.”
A call might not be necessary, because the Bakers are again sharing a house this spring. The real question is who will be paying for dinner tonight?
“Same guy who buys it every night,” Dusty said. “Me.”
Maybe not. Shortly after the game, Darren tweeted: “Dinner on me tonight pops.”