Who’s to say a lymphoma-stricken boy didn’t turn the Natonals’ season around on 24 May? Not the Nats limbering up for National League Championship Series Game Three Monday. And he did his share to help send the Nats to one game away from the World Series.
On 24 May, in remission, Parker Staples got his wish granted to be a National for a day, with a little intercession from the Make-a-Wish Foundation, which does things like that and more for children suffering grave illnesses.
Parker got his wish beginning with Nats general manager Mike Rizzo signing him to a real live one-day player’s contract. He spent the day with his heroes in the clubhouse and on the field and got himself a nice round of signatures, sunglasses, and other swag from Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, Yan Gomes, and Matt Adams among other Nats.
Then, looking proud and happy in his Nats home whites with his surname across the back above number 34, Parker walked out to the mound with Max Scherzer, whom he got to chat with before the moment, waiting behind the plate. The boy waggled his glove just a moment before going into a stretch at the rubber.
Then, he threw one to Scherzer that crossed the plate just under the low, lefthand-hitting corner. Scherzer’s pitch framing needed a little work; the boy missed a low strike by millimeters. But the kid threw one hell of a changeup.
And Max the Knife trotted back to the mound, plopped the ball into Parker’s glove, shared a hearty mid-five with the boy, then walked him off the mound toward the dugout in front of which he signed the ball for him.
That night, the 19-31 Nats ground their way back to 9-8 against the Marlins, of all people, when Soto crashed a three-run homer and Adams followed immediately with a solo blast in the bottom of the eighth. The Marlins’ lone answer back was Jorge Alfaro hitting Sean Doolittle’s first pitch of the ninth over the left center field fence, but Doolittle held on to close out the 12-10 Nats win.
Parker’s Game started the Nats’ season turnaround, right into the 74-38 they nailed from there to snatch a National League wild card, dispatch the Rockies in the wild card game, wrest the division series from the Dodgers, and pull back into Nationals Park Monday for Game Three of a National League Championship Series they dominated on the first St. Louis leg.
Hours before the game, the Nats couldn’t resist commemorating Parker’s first pitch. They tweeted, “On May 24, Parker threw out the 1st pitch at #Nats Park. On May 24, we turned our season around. Coincidence? We think not.”
You hoped it wasn’t pushing the Nationals’ luck to remind yourself Monday afternoon that, in a season which bullpen issues including their own were matters of life and death, their starting pitchers kept the other guys hitting .150 in this postseason so far. With a Game Three showdown between Stephen Strasburg and Jack Flaherty looming, boy wonder past (Strasburg) versus boy wonder present (Flaherty).
And with Scherzer himself hoping the joint went nuts Monday night. “I have a feeling it’s going to be even more crazy,” he told an afternoon presser, “given what we’ve done. Really, our first postseason win as an organisation, I think that means a lot to everybody in D.C., so it should be a fun time.”
Max the Knife got what he wished for. Nationals Park went nuts over the 8-1 Game Three win. And over being just one win away from the first World Series appearance by any Washington team since year one of the New Deal.
With young Parker Staples throwing out the ceremonial first pitch again, another changeup hitting under the corner, too, the lad telegraphed Strasburg’s evening’s work only too acutely. Striking out twelve Cardinal batters on the night, not one of Strasburg’s strikeouts finished with anything resembling a fastball.
The power pitcher who hits 96 or better on the gun nailed those third strikes with changeups and curve balls and exploited almost to the point of mental cruelty the Cardinals’ continuing flaw, their near-complete inability to hit off-speed pitching.
By the time the game ended, the only shock was that neither Strasburg nor two Nats relief pitchers to follow even thought about throwing a screwball. But you’d forgive the Cardinals if they wanted to reach for unlimited highballs.
“It’s not like they’re throwing it right down the middle,” said Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, a four-strikeout victim Monday night. “They’re making quality pitches. They’re throwing strikes and then they’re getting us to chase. They’ve done a good job. We’ve got to do a better job if we’re going to win.”
For three and a half innings the Strasburg-Flaherty matchup went mostly as advertised. Then the Nats slapped Flaherty silly in the bottom of the third. And Howie Kendrick went doubles happy on the night, including driving one to send Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto home in the third, driving another one to send Rendon home in the fifth, and doubling in the seventh to kindly allow Ryan Zimmerman to single him home in the seventh.
An excuse-us Cardinal run scored in the seventh when Soto lost his footing as he fielded Paul DeJong’s should-have-been bases-loading single and threw inexplicably, perhaps in momentary confusion, toward an uncovered portion of real estate. It wasn’t even close to enough to negate the Nattacks.
“Shoot,” deadpanned Rendon after the game, “maybe we’re finally coming around.”
All Game Four starter Patrick Corbin has to do is stick to the script and resist the temptation to feed the Cardinals anything at or above the speed limit. And don’t worry about contact. The Cardinals’ defense was considered nonpareil entering this set, but any time the Cardinals managed to tag any pitch hard Monday night, there was a Nat with a glove committing grand theft base hit.
Rendon took a guaranteed leadoff hit away from Paul DeJong with a well-timed dive left in the third, and Victor Robles—freshly returned to the lineup after the hamstring tweak running up the line in division series Game Two—backpedaled deftly to reach for and snatch Kolten Wong’s leadoff liner to the track in the fourth.
As if to prove further that he was recovered well enough to make it count, Robles made Cardinals reliever John Brebbia pay for ending the fifth with back-to-back strikeouts by hitting a 2-1 fastball too far in the middle of the zone over the right center field fence to lead off the bottom of the sixth.
By the time the Cardinals got anywhere near a more balanced diet including fastballs, there on the mound, of all people, was Fernando Rodney—the grand old man of the Nats’ formerly beleaguered bullpen, who could probably say with a straight face that in his childhood the top ten were the Ten Commandments—to get them out in order in the eighth, including back-to-back strikeouts.
He threw Paul Goldschmidt one changeup near the end of a run of fastballs before catching him looking at a third-strike fastball. He threw Marcell Ozuna—whose premature slide trying for Rendon’s third-inning double let the ball get past him in the first place—two fastballs to open, then nailed him swinging and missing on (stop me if you’ve heard this before) a changeup.
Then as he walked away from the mound, Rodney turned, arched, and delivered his familiar arrow-shoot pantomime. You thought the big boppers, the dugout dancers, knew how to celebrate big moments?
Before you ask, I’ll answer: the Cardinals didn’t hit fastballs too well Monday night, either. Nats rookie reliever Tanner Rainey proved it by throwing sixteen fastballs in eighteen ninth-inning pitches to get rid of Jose Martinez (in the Cardinals starting lineup for a change) and Yadier Molina on swinging strikeouts before letting Tommy Edman settle for flying out to left to end the game.
Just don’t ask Kendrick to explain his torrid postseason to date. “Just having fun and trying to keep it loose,” he said in an on-field interview. “Same stuff I’ve been doing during the season, trying to stay consistent in my routine, trying to get pitches to hit.”
Five months ago the Nats were left for dead. Their manager was left to wonder when, not whether, he’d be taken on the perp walk to the guillotine. Now, they’re the swingingest act in Washington—at the plate, on the mound, in their dugout, and in their clubhouse. “If you don’t have fun in this game, or in anything that you do,” said Rendon, “then in the end, you shouldn’t be doing it.
The Cardinals need a little of that. And any other mojo they can get working. As of the end of Game Three, they have two runs—both unearned—and eleven hits in this NLCS. Their manager Mike Shildt is only too well aware of it.
“We’ve got to get a lead at some point in this series. Hard to win a game if you can’t get a lead,”said Shildt, the man who promised after his team’s division series triumph to [fornicate] up anyone who got in their [fornicating] way. “We’ve got to figure out a way to create some offense early in the game and be able to hold it there. It’s the first time our pitching hasn’t been able to contain this offense. I’m confident we’ll be able to do that tomorrow.”
Maybe the Nats shouldn’t take chances. Maybe Parker Staples should be there to throw out the first pitch before Game Four, too. Considering the Nats season after he did it in May, and the Nats’ NLCS after he did it Monday night, well, if it ain’t broke, don’t call the repairman.