To be frank, the Nationals had no business winning Tuesday night. Doug Fister had shut them down almost completely for eight innings. He’d made them look strikingly like the Nationals team and offense that had been so easily flummoxed earlier this season and much less like the one that had been tattooing opposing teams.
Even when the Mariners pulled him and brought in closer Brandon League, the Nationals chances were miniscule. They were even less after Ryan Zimmerman hit into his third double play of the night leaving Jayson Werth on third base and taking the Nationals down to their final out. According Fangraphs Win Expectancy formula, the Nationals had a 0.5 percent chance of winning the game at that point.
So just how did they put catcher Wilson Ramos in position for his first career walk-off home run? I’ll let them explain.
– First there was the two-base error that allowed leadoff man Jayson Werth to reach off closer Brandon League — a grounder that skipped through the legs of first baseman Justin Smoak.
“(Fister) pitched pretty well,” Werth said. “It seems like it happens more often than not, when you take a guy out of the game that’s rolling pretty good, you kind of take a deep breath and go like, ‘Alright he’s gone, let’s get this guy.’ So I think when that inning started, we felt pretty good about it.”
“The one error got a runner on base and that got things rolling,” Danny Espinosa said. “It’s just little things like that that keep things rolling and start things.”
– Then there was the walk that Roger Bernadina worked.
“The closer’s coming in,” Morse said. “He’s throwing 98. You really want to zone him up and see something over the plate. Bernie got the walk, which was great. That showed you we were zoning him up real good there.”
– And then there was the potential rally killer: Zimmerman’s double play. But Jerry Hairston Jr., a late-game replacement for Laynce Nix, stepped in as the cleanup hitter and worked the count from 0-2 to 3-2 on three straight pitches. The sixth one he sent up the middle for a single to score Werth and bring the Nationals deficit to three runs.
“Jerry had a great at-bat,” Morse said. “He got a good pitch to hit over the middle, and I remember I thought the same thing: ‘Just get a good pitch to hit, and try to hit it back up the middle.’”
Morse did exactly that on a 98 mph sinker, the third pitch he saw from League. He hit it so perfectly up the middle that it struck League on the right calf. The closer couldn’t recover in time and the Nationals comeback remained very much alive on Morse’s infield single.
Turns out they were given even more life from the hit, as League then exited the game with the Mariners’ trainers and cold David Pauley was summoned from the Seattle bullpen.
“Anytime you get the closer out of the game, it’s good,” Morse said. “I hope he’s all right. It just worked out in our favor right there.”
– That produced a bit of scrambling in the Nationals dugout. Neither Espinosa nor Ramos, both rookies, had ever faced Pauley so they went right to hitting coach Rick Eckstein for a scouting report.
“I just asked what’s he got, what’s he like to do, and he gave me an idea of what he likes to do with his pitches,” Espinosa said. “I just went up there trying to have a good at-bat.”
He saw precisely one pitch from Pauley, a 90 mph sinker, and he sent it to right field for the third consecutive Nationals single. Hairston came home and the Nationals improbable comeback win was in their sights, striding to the plate in their powerful catcher.
Ramos was waiting changeup. Eckstein had mentioned that a changeup was Pauley’s second-best pitch and the one he’d likely turn to to get a right-handed hitter out. All he had to do was wait for it.
When he connected, there was no doubt the Nationals had just completed the largest ninth inning comeback in team history (since relocating to D.C.).
– Here’s how various members of the Nationals saw the homer:
“So many great at-bats,” said manager Jim Riggleman. “Now, you’ve got a puncher’s chance with a big guy like Ramos up there.”
“The biggest thing I was thinking is if hits the ball in the gap I need to score,” said Espinosa, who was on first base. “I need to take a chance on that to score so my other thing was just to get a big lead to score on a double. But I saw that ball go up in the air and I knew the second that was hit. The guy is so strong when he makes solid contact like that, it’s a different noise off the bat and the ball just flies.”
“I had a feeling,” said Collin Balester, who watched from the clubhouse with Ryan Mattheus, Livan Hernandez and John Lannan. “I was sitting in (the clubhouse) and I just had a feeling he was going to make a pitch that he could hit and drive. It was delayed in the video room and everyone was screaming and all of a sudden he hit it and it was an amazing feeling. People were running around doing cartwheels in here. We’re jumping up like we’re five years old, won a T-ball game and we’re about to go get a sno-cone. It’s fun. It shows you what this game’s about. It’s a kid’s game and it’s awesome to win. We want to continue to win.”
“I was very excited after I hit that homer because that was the first walk-off home run in my career,” Ramos, who uncharacteristically stood in the batters box to admire his work.
“That was instinct,” he explained. “Every time when I hit the ball good I like to run hard because for the next day, the other pitchers get mad and sometimes they’re going to throw (at you), but in that situation when I hit the ball hard I was excited because I knew the game was over.”
“It was awesome,” Mattheus said. “We were watching it in here and there was a little delay and we heard the cheers from the fans, we didn’t really know what went on yet but we knew it was something good and then when we saw it go across we were just as happy as those guys out there. We were jumping around in here. Screaming jumping off the couches, it was definitely fun. We ran halfway down the tunnel and then we realized they’re not coming up here yet so we celebrated amongst ourselves.”
“It went about 20 feet off his bat and I hopped over the fence,” Werth said. “I knew right away it was quite a shot. I didn’t even look to see where it went. You hear that noise and see the trajectory, and you know right away. As soon as he hit, I looked right at him and jumped over the fence just to see his reaction. I knew where it was going. I didn’t know how far. That was definitely one of those no-doubters.”
And Livan Hernandez summed it all up: “That was a great game. Baseball’s crazy.You know, baseball is 27 outs. Not too many believe that. But it’s 27 outs. And today that’s what happened. We play good and we play hard every day and try to win some games. This is what we do now.”
The Nationals will wake up Wednesday morning in sole possession of third place in the NL East and with a chance, once again, to be a .500 team.