WASHINGTON - The lightning and dark clouds stirred in the distance Friday, long before Livan Hernandez tossed a 77-m.p.h. change-up for strike one at 7:06 p.m. Five minutes later, the fans at Nationals Park scurried for cover from a storm that even the most casual observer could tell was imminent.
"I was surprised they started the game," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "It hadn't rained yet, but you could tell it was going to rain, I guess. I could. I'm not a weather man."
It hardly mattered because at some point Friday (or Saturday morning), Manuel needed Ryan Madson. His closer has been the most dependable in all of baseball, but that was before the Washington Nationals battered him for six runs in an epic 8-4 comeback victory.
The night ended in the morning, at 12:25 a.m., when Ryan Zimmerman mashed a 92-m.p.h. Madson fastball - the 72d pitch he had thrown in three days - into the left-field stands for a walk-off grand slam. His teammates delivered a shaving-cream pie and doused him with Gatorade.
Across the field, Madson departed with his head lowered, a second blown save attached to his name, and an ERA that skyrocketed from 2.06 to 3.25. He surrendered six runs in the ninth inning, equaling his total from the previous 86 days and 232/3 innings.
"I don't really care about myself," a fidgety Madson said later. "It's more about the guys who spent all the time out there all day and all night to get that win. To let them down doesn't feel good."
His teammates had worked hard for this one. They waited 2 hours and 22 minutes once the rain came. Undeterred, with Kyle Kendrick starting a day earlier than expected and two stellar innings from Brad Lidge and Antonio Bastardo, the Phillies began the ninth inning with a two-run lead.
As the rain delay that interrupted the series opener lengthened, it was unwise to use Roy Oswalt, who is two starts removed from recovery from a back injury. He warmed up as usual before the rain arrived and will start Saturday night's game.
So there was Kendrick, filler of just about every role for the Phillies in 2011, asked at the last minute to start a day earlier than expected. And all he did was toss six innings of two-run baseball.
It was a huge boost to a depleted pitching staff, already down one starter in Cole Hamels. The Phillies could have opted to simply use the bullpen Friday, but that was impossible given Thursday's rain delay that forced Vance Worley to the bench after only three innings. In two days, the Phillies endured 279 minutes of waiting.
To Kendrick they turned Friday, and the pitcher with the most thankless job on the team delivered. He has done that just about every time he's taken the ball this season, no matter the role.
Kendrick wants to start. He's 26 and has 95 career major-league starts to his name. For now, he is a swing man - and a valuable one at that - bouncing from the bullpen to the rotation when needed.
"Hopefully," Kendrick said, "one of these days, I won't have to go back and forth."
Nonetheless, Kendrick has been more than serviceable for the Phillies with a 3.24 ERA this season. It just so happens that makes him the sixth-best option on this team.
He was the only option Friday. As the rain dissipated, Manuel traversed the grass as the Nationals grounds crew tried to dry it. He walked to short right field to inspect a river that had formed there. He chatted with crew chief Dale Scott, perhaps hoping for some sort of reprieve.
Why the game even started at its scheduled time likely irked the Phillies. As the storm formed overhead, Hernandez filibustered on the mound. He looked to the sky, heard crashing thunder, and decided the last thing he wanted to do was throw a baseball. He flipped the ball harmlessly to first base a few times, circled the mound aimlessly, and finally put his arms in the air when the rain fell.
When the game resumed 142 minutes later, Hernandez and his right arm made of rubber remained on the mound. The Phillies smoked him for four runs in the third, when seven of nine batters cracked hits, including yet another John Mayberry Jr. extra-base hit.
It was enough until Madson took the mound. Jayson Werth started the ninth with a classic Werthian at-bat that Phillies fans used to love; on the 11th pitch he singled to left. It spiraled into chaos from there.
"He's ahead of all of those hitters except for Zimmerman," Manuel said. "Hell, he had two strikes on every one of them. Werth hit the ball good. The rest were quail hits and a ground ball in the hole. The balls found places. Those things happen."
On a night when the Phillies waited so long for victory, those things happened to Madson at a lousy time.