Top stories of 2018: All-Star Week in D.C.

As we count down the final days of 2018, we’re counting down the most significant stories of the year for the Nationals. Some are positive. Some are negative. All helped define this baseball season in Washington. Five top stories made the final cut, and we’ll reveal one each of the next five days, beginning with ...

No. 5: The All-Star Game in D.C.

From the day Nationals Park opened, Mark Lerner lobbied Bud Selig to give an All-Star Game to Washington. It took a decade, not to mention an eventual change of commissioners, but the long-awaited event finally came this summer.

And in spite of whatever disappointment defined the 2018 baseball season around here, All-Star Week more than lived up to the hype.

The baseball world convened on South Capitol Street for three steamy, stormy days in mid-July and was treated to some legitimate spectacle and drama. The weather wasn’t great, but somehow all the in-stadium events proceeded as scheduled, and everyone in uniform put on a memorable show.

The All-Star Futures Game on Sunday afternoon was a nice precursor for the rest of the week, with the U.S. Team outslugging the World Team 10-6 in a game that featured eight home runs. Little did we all realize there would be even more blasts over the next two nights.

The real gem of the week was Monday’s Home Run Derby, which always had the potential to be special, given Bryce Harper’s pledge to compete in his home ballpark, but somehow turned into something even more spectacular.

Harper-Doolittle-Scherzer-Derby-sidebar.jpgWearing D.C.-themed gear and playing up to the home crowd, Harper - who, in case you forgot, sported a .214 batting average during the season’s first half - took down Freddie Freeman in the first round, then Max Muncy in the semifinals. Then he found himself staring at a massive deficit to Kyle Schwarber in the finals, needing to hit nine homers in 47 seconds to tie the Cubs slugger’s round of 18 and keep his chances alive.

Which is exactly what Harper did. And when he launched one final blast into the right field bleachers during the bonus time he was awarded, he celebrated victory in the middle of the diamond with his dad (and Derby pitcher) Ron, plus teammates Max Scherzer and Sean Doolittle and manager Davey Martinez.

The overflow crowd of 43,698 roared with delight, and afterward Harper heaped all of the praise back upon them.

“This wasn’t only for me and my family and everything like that,” he said, at one point nearly choking up. “But this is for, you know, the cook. The guy that works the front. And the people that work upstairs. I mean, this is the whole city of D.C. I was very fortunate to be able to bring this back to them and do it here.”

It was the first time all season Harper actually seemed to be having fun. And wouldn’t you know, the Home Run Derby performance served as a springboard for a dramatic turnaround at the plate. He hit .300 with a .972 OPS during the second half, salvaging what looked like a lost season on a personal level and setting himself up to still hit a huge payday this winter in free agency.

With that kind of hometown drama on Monday night, there was little chance Tuesday’s All-Star Game was going to top it. The 89th Midsummer Classic, though, sure tried its best, thanks to some historic displays of power both at the plate and on the mound.

The American and National leagues combined to launch 10 home runs, obliterating the previous All-Star Game record of six, while also combining for 25 strikeouts (four of those by Scherzer, who made his third consecutive All-Star start but gave up his first-ever run via a towering homer by Aaron Judge).

The NL, which was trying to win for only the fifth time in 22 years, got a game-tying homer from Scooter Gennett in the bottom of the ninth. But then Alex Bregman and George Springer went back-to-back in the top of the 10th to propel the AL to an 8-6 victory that capped a wild and exciting couple of nights of watching baseball’s best take Washington by storm.

“I think it has to be one of the best in All-Star Game, MLB history,” Cubs catcher Willson Contreras said. “Same with the Home Run Derby last night. It was a special moment. I think everyone enjoyed this as much as we did.”

Yes, it was all just an exhibition. And no, it couldn’t erase the bitter taste of the actual baseball season that took place in D.C. But anyone who witnessed any of it in person on South Capitol Street or at home on TV won’t soon forget the thrill of Washington’s first All-Star Game in 49 years.

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