PITTSBURGH - This was supposed to be a low-key, low-stress, quick Sunday at the ballpark for the Nationals, who after clinching the National League East title last night rested most of their regulars and essentially acknowledged they would get back to serious work Monday when they return home for the final week of the regular season.
Turns out this was anything but a low-key, low-stress game. And it sure wasn't quick.
The Nationals lost Bryce Harper to a left thumb injury suffered when he slid awkwardly in the third inning after Pirates third baseman Jung Ho Kang faked a tag. That prompted an A.J. Cole fastball behind Kang's back, which led to a benches-clearing scuffle. And all of that merely prompted a wild game that saw Kang homer in the bottom of the seventh to give Pittsburgh the lead but then the Nationals rally to score five times in the top of the eighth en route to a 10-7 victory.
Jayson Werth's two-run homer off former teammate Felipe Rivero tied the game. RBI singles by Chris Heisey (who replaced Harper) and Clint Robinson, plus a bases-loaded walk drawn by Pedro Severino put the Nationals ahead for good.
By the time Mark Melancon recorded the final out for his 43rd save of the season, a full 4 hours and one minute had elapsed since Tyler Glasnow's first pitch, making this the longest nine-inning game in Nationals history. The 17 combined pitchers used were one shy of the MLB record for a nine-inning game. The 45 combined players used tied the NL record for a nine-inning game.
The aftermath of Saturday night's clinching celebration, combined with the shock of this morning's tragic news of Marlins ace Jose Fernandez's death, left the Nationals (and probably the Pirates, as well) in something of a daze when they took the field this afternoon.
It showed during a 38-minute first inning that included six total runs, only three hits, four walks, an error and a Little League play in which the Pirates essentially pulled off a run-scoring double-steal on a foul popout to the catcher.
Then came the third inning, and suddenly everyone in uniform was fully engaged in this game.
It began when Harper roped a ball down the right field line and tried to stretch it into a triple. Josh Bell's throw missed the cutoff man and rolled well wide of third base, but Kang faked a tag attempt anyway, prompting Harper to make a late, awkward slide attempt.
Harper jammed his left thumb into the bag and immediately hunched over in pain, expressing some displeasure with Kang. After a conference with manager Dusty Baker and head athletic trainer Paul Lessard, Harper remained in the game (he wound up scoring) but Baker jawed at the Pirates dugout on his way back to his station.
When Heisey replaced Harper in right field to begin the bottom of the third, it seemed only a question of how and when the Nationals would retaliate. Sure enough, when Kang come up to bat third that frame, Cole's first pitch sailed behind his back.
Plate umpire Jordan Baker immediately ejected Cole. Sean Rodriguez, who was in the Pirates' on-deck circle, walked toward the plate and jawed at Werth and Oliver Perez, who emerged from the Nationals dugout. Within seconds, both benches and bullpens had emptied, with a minor scuffle breaking out that featured Rodriguez in a starring role.
Once order was restored, Rodriguez joined Cole in ejection. Everyone else stayed in the game and settled down to resume play in normal fashion.
The Pirates took a 5-4 lead in the fourth with a pair of runs off Mat Latos, but the Nationals came back to tie the game on Brian Goodwin's double in the fifth.
Kang's two-run homer off Koda Glover in the bottom of the seventh put the Pirates back on top and surely didn't sit well with the Nationals. But then Werth came off the bench in the top of the eighth, and the storyline of this game took another wild turn.