ATLANTA — The digital clock at Turner Field read 2:29 a.m., and the impressive remaining number of the 36,832 fans who were in the park way back when this game was originally supposed to start made their way to the exits, exhausted and disgusted.
Behind the third base dugout, though, were a handful of Nationals fans celebrating the night away. And on the field, then later in the visitors clubhouse, there were a bunch of ballplayers whooping it up and enjoying perhaps their grittiest victory of the season, a 4-1, 11-inning triumph over the Braves in a game that didn't begin until nearly 11 p.m. thanks to a steady rain that fell most of the evening.
"It was very cool, actually," Bryce Harper said. "It was like midnight madness, I guess you could say. It was pretty cool to be able to do that. Of course you don't want to play until 3 o'clock. That's pretty rough. But thankfully we have an 8:05 ESPN game tomorrow night. So hopefully we can get some rest tonight."
The Nationals certainly will sleep in Sunday morning before heading back to the park for the nationally televised finale of this series. They'll do so feeling much better about themselves than they would have had they lost this marathon game and allowed the Braves to creep to within 2 1/2 games of the NL East lead.
Instead, the Nats lead the division by 4 1/2 games after overcoming the physical and mental hurdles involved in this one.
"It's more mental, probably," manager Matt Williams said. "Because the longer you go, the more you get into shutdown mode. But they've been doing this all year. Regardless of situation of game, or delays or anything like that, they're ready to play. So I'm proud of them."
Though they were on the field warming up and ready to go for the scheduled 7:10 p.m. first pitch, both teams retreated to their clubhouses when the tarp was rolled out only seven minutes earlier, with rain not yet falling but expected. By the time the precipitation subsided and the field was prepared for play, it was 10:51 p.m.
How unusual was that?
"Eh, I've done this before," said Kevin Frandsen, who recalled playing a 1 a.m. game in a college tournament in Wichita, Kan. "But usually when you start that late, you're continuing the game. You're not starting a game then. It is weird, but at the same time, I thought it was fun."
Both teams' pitching staffs tried to make this as unpleasant an exercise as possible, with Tanner Roark and Aaron Harang each going seven innings and allowing only one run. The bullpens then dueled to a stand-off for three more innings.
And then, in the top of the 11th, with the clock past 2 a.m., there was a breakthrough at last. Anthony Rendon and Adam LaRoche singled off Braves right-hander David Carpenter. After Ian Desmond lined out to left, Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez summoned left-hander James Russell to face Harper in a key spot.
Harper, as it's well-known, has been searching at the plate for weeks. But throughout his struggles, he has shown impressive patience, drawing walks when given nothing to hit. Which he did again in this key spot, taking his free pass and loading the bases with one out.
"Bryce's at-bat was awesome," Frandsen said. "It's the 11th inning, you want to get it over with. And he didn't budge, and that was awesome. It set up everything."
With Wilson Ramos now at the plate, Gonzalez made his second post-2 a.m., mid-inning pitching change, calling upon right-hander Anthony Varvaro. Ramos (who turned 27 when the clock struck midnight in the top of the fifth) wasted no time, lacing the first pitch he saw up the middle to drive in the go-ahead run.
Moments later, Frandsen added a 2-run double, giving Rafael Soriano a comfortable cushion for the bottom of the 11th and sending the Nationals to a victory that must have left them physically and emotionally drained by night's end.
"It's not hard," insisted Ramos, who on Tuesday welcomed the birth of his first daughter. "No, if you want to play, you play 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 innings. I love this game, and I like to play. When you like to play, you can play a lot of innings."
Even at 2 a.m.?
"Yeah," he said. "And it's my birthday, too. So it's a good time, a good gift. This year, I get my best gift, my daughter. I'm really happy for that."