- The Washington Times
Sunday, April 24, 2016

The first known use of the word “strange” dates back to the 13th century, when it was pulled out of Middle English to be used as a hybrid phrase born from Anglo-French and Latin.

Synonyms developed: bizarre, peculiar, quirky, screwy, weird and wild, among them.

Pile those together for an explanation of what occurred at Nationals Park on Sunday afternoon and early evening. The longest game in team history ended in the bottom of the 16th inning when Chris Heisey hit his first walkoff home run, producing a team-wide sprint onto the field to celebrate a no-way-that-happened 6-5 win. It took 5:56 to reach that point.

The victorious home run from Heisey capped a list of the rare that began in the eighth inning, then ended in front of a dipping sun and thinned crowd in the 16th.

Beforehand, Stephen Strasburg allowed a three-run home run in the eighth after dominating all afternoon. Bryce Harper, scheduled for a day off, sent a pinch-hit homer to center field to tie the game in the ninth. Reliever Oliver Perez, batting for the first time in five years in a professional game, bunted on his own to force an error and tie the game again in the 15th inning. Being struck by lightning while holding a winning lottery ticket seems more plausible than what occurred for the Nationals’ 14th win.

“I feel like I just came out of the Twilight Zone,” Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. “Man, that was some game.”

Let’s start with Harper. He had played every game this season. Sunday was an opportunity to give him an extended break since the Nationals are off Monday, then play a night game Tuesday. By taking a day off Sunday, Harper would be off the field for almost 72 hours after finishing up Saturday afternoon and returning mid-day Tuesday.

Baker had let him know pinch-hitting was possible. So, in the eighth, Harper and his bat rose from his seat in the clubhouse tunnel and began working in the batting cage. Heisey joined him. Harper showed Heisey one of his preferred drills, where he works his top hand only, helping him stay on top of and through the ball.

The on-deck circle was vacant for an extended period of time in the bottom of the ninth. AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” blitzed through the stadium. Harper hopped up the steps, worked his bat and the crowd stood. Seven fastballs later, he trotted around the bases to approving roars. His ninth home run of the season had landed in center field, completing an appearance better suited for a fable.

“Got an opportunity to get up there, have a good at-bat against [Kevin] Jepsen and get a pitch I could do some damage with,” Harper said. “You know … hit a homer.”

Baker kept his promise of time off to Harper. The manager recalled a time he did a double-switch with Barry Bonds, who was supposed to have a break. Instead, Baker pinch-hit Bonds, then kept him in the game. It lasted 18 innings. So, Harper was done following his jolt. Heisey ran out to right field. Harper tugged on a red hoodie and watched from the dugout rail.

Things were dire two hours later. Yusmeiro Petit worked through 4 ⅔ innings with guile built in changeups, sliders and the occasional 90-mph fastball. He finally ceded a run on his 77th pitch, putting the Nationals behind again, this time, 5-4.

By then, most had left. The Nationals bench was emptied of options. Baker heard fans shout about empty stomachs, which made him think of his own. Only Perez remained as a bullpen choice since Baker did not want to use Blake Treinen or Shawn Kelley. Perez entered, picked up a quick strikeout and the Nationals, out of cards to play, came to bat.

Two outs into the bottom of the 15th inning, Danny Espinosa was briskly walked on four pitches to bring Perez to the plate. The last time he had an at-bat in a professional game was in 2011 when playing for the Nationals’ Double-A team, the Harrisburg Senators. He’s a career .158 hitter. His 341 major league at-bats came in his prior life as a starting pitcher.

Espinosa stole second base. With the count 1-1, Perez decided to bunt. No one had instructed him to do so, nor expected him to. Minnesota catcher John Ryan Murphy moved up the third-base line to grab the slow rolling ball, then threw to first. His throw would have been in time, but it was wide for an error. Espinosa ran to the plate. The game was tied. Everyone was stunned.

“Shocked them, shocked me, shocked everybody,” Baker said.

After the game, Perez could not identify the pitch he bunted. He had tried this tactic twice before in his career and decided to give it a whirl again Sunday when he spotted the third baseman far away.

“I hadn’t hit in five years,” Perez said. “I thought it might be a good idea. It worked out.”

He worked through the top of the 16th to move the game into historical territory for the organization. It became the longest regular-season game by time and tied for the longest in innings when Heisey came to the plate.

Heisey, who had remained in the game because of Baker’s promise to Harper, led off the bottom of the 16th. He was a surprise roster member coming out of spring training. But, he had played for Baker before, providing right-handed power off the bench.

His second home run as a National landed in the left field seats. A mixture of beverages were dumped on his head once he arrived at the plate. Strasburg celebrated in the clubhouse, off the hook after a Wilson Ramos double in the eighth drove in two, making the Harper bolt meaningful, the Perez bunt possible and the Heisey homer game ending.

Those who remained jumped in the open spaces produced by people who went home early. Baker, 66 years old and a near-50-year veteran of professional baseball, called it the craziest game he’s been a part of. Harper hasn’t been around as long, though shared the same feeling.

“This was unreal,” Harper said.

Note: The Nationals adjusted their rotation for the upcoming three-game series with the Philadelphia Phillies that begins on Tuesday. Max Scherzer (2-1, 4.32) will pitch in the opener, followed by LHP Gio Gonzalez (1-0, 1.42) and RHP Tanner Roark (2-2, 2.63). Washington will skip starter Joe Ross, who left his start April 20 after two innings because of a blister on his middle finger. Ross had the affected skin shaved.

“He isn’t going to do no fingerprinting any time soon,” Baker said.

• Todd Dybas can be reached at tdybas@washingtontimes.com.

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