"Wet grounds" postponement adds to Nats' bizarre week

PHILADELPHIA - In this, the summer of rain delays and rainouts and agonizing losses and surprise comebacks, the Nationals tonight experienced something that would have sounded impossible if not for everything else they've experienced in recent months: a game postponed not because of rain that fell today but several days ago, making the infield unplayable.

Yes, tonight's series opener against the Phillies had to be called off because - despite the frantic efforts of the Citizens Bank Park grounds crew - an infield that became waterlogged when left uncovered while the team was out of town could not be repaired quickly enough to make it acceptable for major league players.

They'll try to play two on Tuesday, with a straight doubleheader now scheduled for 3:05 p.m., with Erick Fedde (tonight's scheduled starter) pitching the opener and Tanner Roark pitching the nightcap.

Then again, with a 90 percent chance of rain in the forecast, it might be a significant challenge to play nine innings, let alone 18 on Tuesday.

It's the first major league game postponed due to "wet grounds" since a Sept. 21, 1987 contest between the Yankees and Brewers at Milwaukee's County Stadium.

"It's kind of weird," Nationals manager Davey Martinez said. "But we all got together, and for the safety of our players, we agreed the field was not playable. It was a good decision. The field was very soft. I would hate for any player - our team or their team - to get hurt in those conditions."

How did it come to this? How did a postponement befitting a Single-A club occur in a major league ballpark?

According to Phillies executive Howard Smith, it was the result of a bad forecast on Friday that produced far more rain than expected. With the team on the road, the infield was left uncovered.

"The field wasn't tarped on Friday night, because we were supposed to get a small amount of rain," Smith told reporters this afternoon. "If you tarp the field 24 hours a day, the field will turn brown and it will die. It's an on-and-off situation. We didn't tarp it Friday night. In retrospect, had I known it was going to be this much rain, we would've tarped it. But we didn't. The damage was done, and we're just playing catch up."

The field was tarped today when players from both teams began to arrive at the park because it had been raining. When the tarp finally was pulled up around 4 p.m., the dirt underneath it was not only wet but unstable.

Phillies-Blowtorch-Infield-Sidebar.jpgThe grounds crew immediately went to work, hoping to get the field playable in time for the 7:05 p.m. game, going to the extraordinary measure of using blowtorches fueled by propane tanks to dry out the dirt.

"Basically, we're drying out the top layer of moisture to sort of turn the field over, and roll the field," Smith said shortly before 5 p.m. "It's actually working."

Except, it didn't work quickly enough. At 6 p.m., the managers and general managers for both teams stepped onto the field to check on the progress. It didn't look good, but they decided to give it some more time.

At 6:40 p.m., the managers and GMs were joined by umpires and player reps from each squad: Max Scherzer for the Nationals, Rhys Hoskins for the Phillies.

"We both stepped on it and said: 'This is unplayable,' " said Scherzer, who described the dirt as "spongy." "And talking to the grounds crew, they just didn't think there was going to be enough time to get the field at a playable condition. We both looked at each other and said if we started tonight and somebody got hurt, we would both feel pretty guilty about doing that. Because there's a very real likeliness that with the conditions that were going on, somebody would be going at 100 percent and the dirt would have absolutely gotten torn up. So just wasn't worth it."

Scherzer has seen firsthand the dangers of playing on a wet field, having watched former teammate (and now-Phillies catcher) Wilson Ramos tear his ACL trying to make a leaping catch at the plate in 2016 and Bryce Harper suffer what at the time looked like a similar ACL tear but proved to be only a bone bruise in 2017, in each case on a wet field after a rain delay.

"There isn't a player in here that can hold themselves accountable if something like that happened," Scherzer said.

At one point, Harper walked onto the field himself, mockingly pretended to slip on the third base line and eventually grabbed a rake and started helping out the grounds crew. It didn't help much.

So when 7:05 p.m. arrived and it was clear the field would not be ready anytime soon, the postponement was announced.

It should be noted the Nationals aren't overly upset at the Phillies for causing the problem. As one team official put it, they've been the victims of poor forecasts themselves more than once. They weren't about to criticize an opponent for being victims of one themselves, especially when they made a good-faith effort to get the field ready for play tonight.

But perhaps at this point, given the week they've had, the Nationals can't help but laugh it off.

On Friday night, they sat through a 1-hour, 21-minute rain delay, then played 23 minutes of baseball against the Cubs, then sat through another 2-hour, 54-minute rain delay before the game was postponed.

On Saturday, they sat through a 2-hour, 10-minute rain delay before beating the Cubs in 2 hours, 45 minutes in the opener of their doubleheader. Then in the nightcap, they sat through a 1-hour, 29-minute delay in the eighth inning before completing a 3-hour, 15-minute game at 1:42 a.m.

On Sunday, they sat around for three hours before their scheduled series finale was postponed until Thursday (when Hurricane Florence is expected to wreak havoc with the East Coast).

At this point, what else can happen?

"The frustrating thing is, we're playing well," Martinez said. "We didn't play yesterday, and we gotta sit again today. The guys want to play. It's good we didn't stay there til 10 o'clock and didn't play. They can go home and get some rest, because it's going to be a long day tomorrow, too."

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