HOUSTON — The chants were so loud Roger Bernadina could hear them reverberating as he walked through the tunnel toward the visitors’ clubhouse at Minute Maid Park Tuesday night. Reveling in another victory, the Washington Nationals turned the music up and awaited their hero of the night.
“Shark! Shark! Shark!” They screamed, as they waited for Bernadina to join them after an on-field interview, moments after his jaw-dropping catch in left-center field had saved their win over the Houston Astros. They clapped their hands with their arms outstretched, pantomiming the chomping motion of a shark, the nickname given to Bernadina years ago for the way he hunts down balls in the outfield.
The Nationals’ 28-year-old outfielder, one of the organization’s longest-tenured players, smiled at the sight of his teammates. He stretched out his arms and chomped back at them, soaking in the moment.
Even a day later, it was all anyone wanted to talk about.
“That was the catch of the year,” said third base coach Bo Porter, who positions and coaches the outfielders. “Without a doubt. Not only the athleticism, the body control and the degree of difficulty, but the fact that it’s the ballgame. When you add all of those dynamics, it’s the catch of the year.”
They watched the highlight on a seemingly endless loop on MLB Network and dissected the confluence of events that led to it.
The fact that Bernadina was shaded toward right field, and a perfect jump as soon as Brett Wallace’s bat hit the ball was imperative. The unique nature of the outfield walls at Minute Maid Park that meant Bernadina, already charging full speed, knew at some point he’d hit a wall and a fence that held the Nationals’ bullpen. The knowledge that if he doesn’t catch it, with two runners on, the Nationals would have loss No. 44 instead of victory No. 67.
“He’s running full speed into an obstacle course that’s made of bricks and stones,” said Jayson Werth, who was so sure that Bernadina would get it, he hopped the dugout fence as Wallace made contact and said, “Bernie’s got it.”
“At that moment, all the senses are heightened,” Werth said, comparing it with the catch Dewayne Wise of the Chicago White Sox made to save Mark Buehrle’s perfect game in 2009 — one that only comes around every so often. “He’s full speed, and he can’t look at the wall but he knows it’s there. He’s concentrating on the ball … . As he gets closer, he kind of senses the wall and then he jumps knowing that he’s jumping into the corner.
“The kicker on the play is when you get back in there, now you have stuff above you. The ball’s coming down, and things come into your vision, which play with your depth perception. Just to make the catch without all that stuff is difficult, but at the end you’ve got stuff coming into your field of vision, which only makes it tougher. One of the most clutch defensive plays I’ve seen.”
Porter, along with Werth and Bryce Harper, the only two other center fielders on the Nationals’ roster, agreed that the presence of the team’s bullpen behind Bernadina, and the fact that right-hander Craig Stammen was there to yell “You got room,” to Bernadina as he charged, was integral. But Bernadina said he couldn’t hear him, and the catch was still dangerous in nature, even with Stammen there.
“I think [the toughest aspect] is the thought of ‘Am I going to run into this wall and kill myself?’” Harper said. “When he was running, I was thinking ‘Just don’t hit the wall and knock your head.’ That’s the only thing I was thinking, and then he went around the wall and caught it. I was pretty impressed by it.”
A day later, Werth returned to the starting lineup in right, and Harper was slotted into center field. Bernadina was on the bench, left to soak in his moment just a bit longer.
“That was a big win,” Werth said. “This time of year, it seems like each win gets bigger and bigger. You’ve got to keep winning. The wins keep getting bigger and bigger.”
Notes: Chien-Ming Wang stopped his rehab assignment Wednesday as the right hip strain that has had him on the disabled list since July 3 had not improved enough for him to be activated. Wang, who gave up six earned runs in four innings in Double A Tuesday night, was scheduled to end his rehab assignment by Aug. 11. He remains on the disabled list.