It had only been 48 days since the Nationals carried a nine-run lead into the sixth inning of a crucial game against the Braves and watched it all crumble away in horrifying fashion. So when they entered the fifth inning Thursday night against the Cubs, leading this time by five runs, they weren't about to ease off the gas pedal.
Thus, Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa each stole second base off Chicago rookie reliever Lendy Castillo. And later, Jayson Werth was given the green light to swing away at a 3-0 pitch with the bases loaded.
It all seemed fairly innocuous, just another example of the Nationals steamrolling the Cubs during what wound up a 9-2 victory and a four-game sweep by a combined score of 31-9. Except for Jamie Quirk, Chicago's normally mild-mannered bench coach, who started jawing at Werth and third base coach Bo Porter and in the process prompted both clubs' benches and bullpens twice to empty and engage in a mild fracas that resulted in the ejections of Quirk and three players.
"I mean, if they get mad at my guys in the fifth inning swinging 3-0 or running, they better get used to it," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said.
Just like that, a four-game series that otherwise would have been notable for the beating the 85-52 Nationals put on the 51-85 Cubs ended with a bang, a war of words, hot tempers and a debate on proper baseball etiquette.
"I think I'd be pretty pissed off if I was getting my teeth kicked in all weekend, too, but you can't lay down," said rookie Bryce Harper, who figured prominently in the incident. "The Braves series, they came back after we were up 9-0. So you can't lay low. You've got to keep going, keep grinding, keep coming."
By the time the fifth inning arrived Thursday night, the Nationals led 7-2, having scored 27 runs over their last 20 offensive innings. They kept the pressure up, with Johnson allowing both Desmond and Espinosa to steal second base and later letting Werth swing away on a 3-0 count.
During an ensuing delay while Chicago catcher Steve Clevenger sought a new mitt, Quirk began yelling at Porter, who wound up approaching the visitors' dugout and nearly entering it to engage with his coaching counterpart as both benches and bullpens emptied.
Porter wouldn't reveal details of what Quirk said -- or what he said back -- but defended his strong response.
"When it comes to our players, I'm very passionate."
Quirk wound up getting ejected, with Porter allowed to remain in the game but told in no uncertain terms he needed to return to the coaching box and not leave it again.
"He got very close to being out of order himself," crew chief Jerry Layne told a pool reporter. "Had he got into the dugout and started a fracas, he would have been ejected. But I thought this was all stemming from what Jamie Quirk did, and he started it. So I got the person that started it."
Order was quickly restored and the game continued without incident until the bottom of the sixth opened with Castillo throwing his first pitch well inside and just missing Harper's right hip. Harper took a step toward the mound and said a few words to Castillo, causing both benches and bullpen to empty again.
"Going up in that situation, I thought something was going to happen, because of what happened before," Harper said. "That's just baseball, I guess."
Said Chicago manager Dale Sveum: "Castillo's a Rule 5 kid that's thrown a lot of those pitches today. There was no intention to hit Bryce Harper."
Order appeared to be restored again, and players were beginning to retreat to their respective dugouts and bullpens when another tussle began near first base. By the time everything was cleared, Clevenger (who aggressively shoved Nationals left fielder Michael Morse), Cubs reliever Manny Corpas and Nationals reliever Michael Gonzalez were all ejected.
"You don't come into our house, and you can't mess with our kid brother," Gonzalez said. "That's how we see it."
Through the entire scene, Harper remained on the fray, veteran teammate Ryan Zimmerman by his side and making sure the 19-year-old didn't get let his emotions get the best of him.
"I wasn't going to do anything stupid," Harper said. "I'm just trying to check off everything on my list. I've gotten thrown at, gotten hit, stole home, we're winning, homers, everything that's going on. Just checking it off the list. That's one of them. Just trying to stay calm in that situation and not do anything stupid."
That was the prevailing sentiment for everyone on the Nationals' side: Don't do anything that might jeopardize your ability to appear in the final 25 games of a pennant race by taking the bait from a team playing out the string of a miserable season.
"We got a lot more to lose," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "I think that's why Nationals coaches were trying to get everybody back and say: 'Listen, if one of us does something, it's going to cost us a lot more than one of their guys at this point in the year.' I think for the most part, guys kept their head on their shoulders. It didn't get too out of control. That's not what we need this time of year."
Thus, Jordan Zimmermann took the mound for the top of the seventh and went back to work, striking out a pair of batters to complete one of his best starts in a month and secure his 10th win of the season. Relievers Tom Gorzelanny and Christian Garcia then finished it off, completing a four-game sweep that leaves the Nationals 33 games over .500 and still holding a 7 12-game lead over the Braves in the NL East.
Over in the visitors' clubhouse, the Cubs were again left dazed and demoralized by what the best team in baseball had done to them over the last four nights.
"It's probably one of the biggest butt-whuppings I've ever gotten in my career, as a coach or player," Sveum said. "I don't remember getting manhandled that bad in any kind of series I've ever been a part of."