The moment the ball hit his bat, Wilson Ramos knew.
He flung his arms out, dropped his bat and lifted his hands above his head. He held the pose all the way to first base, as his teammates poured out of the Washington Nationals’ dugout, the clock inching toward 11 p.m., and the raucous Nationals Park crowd showering them with adulation.
In from third base scampered Steve Lombardozzi, so excited to touch home plate he thought for a minute he might not have, and out came the shaving cream-filled towel. On the scoreboard the lights blazed all the Nationals needed to know: Washington 4, Philadelphia 3.
Eleven innings, 14 hits, three hours and 42 minutes and four painstakingly earned runs later the Nationals had themselves their 17th victory of the season and major league-leading fifth walk-off of the year.
“Man,” Lombardozzi said, “I was freaking out. I threw my helmet and got to Ramos as fast as possible. I was saying to myself, ‘Did I hit home plate? I hope I did.’ You try to win in nine, but it’s exciting to get it done like that.”
For 10 ⅔ innings the Nationals’ usual starting catcher sat on the bench. He munched on sunflower seeds and chatted with teammates. The chance he’d get into this game were slim to none. Ramos knew the schedule. The Nationals will play a game at 1:05 p.m. on Saturday and he’ll be behind the plate. This was his day off.
“I know that the catcher is the last option,” Ramos said later, long after he’d washed the celebratory shaving cream from his hair but couldn’t fully get rid of the sting in his left eye.
But the Nationals were playing with 24 men, first baseman Adam LaRoche nursing a sore right oblique and all, and Ramos was the last man standing. As the bottom of the 11th began, Ramos glanced over at manager Davey Johnson who flashed five fingers at him. If he needed him, Ramos would be his fifth batter that inning. Ramos nodded.
“In that moment I just took my batting gloves and said ‘OK, I’m the man,’” Ramos said. “‘Go out and hit the ball hard.’”
With two outs, the Nationals loaded the bases. Lombardozzi laced a single to right. Bryce Harper worked a six-pitch walk, his third free pass of the night. Jayson Werth worked one on five pitches. Ramos went into the batting cage and took a few hacks. He talked with hitting coach Rick Eckstein about Phillies’ reliever Michael Schwimer, who was working his third inning of the night. Schwimer throws sliders, Eckstein told him. Be ready for the heater.
“He threw me one heater,” Ramos said, referring to the first pitch, a called strike low and away. “I took it, because I have to see what the pitcher’s got. After that, he threw me a couple sliders and the fastball again. But I was ready for the slider. He hung a slider and I swung.”
“That’s not easy,” Werth said. “I will say that. It’s not easy. He did a great job. Had a big at-bat. That’s a crazy game, you know?”
It was the serendipitous ending to a night that the Nationals had seen go awry so many times. So many opportunities squandered. So many innings ended in regret.
Stephen Strasburg, who hadn’t surrendered a home run in over 20 months and 66 innings, gave up not one, but two — the sixth and seventh home runs allowed of his entire career. The Nationals put 23 runners on base and were able to score only three of them before Ramos came to the plate in the 11th.
Chad Tracy, who’d last homered in the major leagues on Sept. 6, 2010, smoked his first of the season to right field. The 6-7-8 hitters in the Nationals’ lineup were 6-for-11 while the 3-4-5 hitters were 2-for-13 with Tracy accounting for both hits. But the Nationals scratched across a run in the sixth, Danny Espinosa, who was 2-for-3, scoring on a sacrifice fly by Jesus Flores, and another in the eighth on Flores’ double to left that scored Tracy. To extras they went with the Nationals’ bullpen putting up five straight scoreless frames.
In a series traditionally known for its large, and primarily Phillies-fan-dominated crowds, the park was split closer to 70-30 in favor of the Nationals Friday night — the organization’s rallying call to fans to fill the park a relative success. Shortstop Ian Desmond called the cheers “refreshing,” and Espinosa noted how much more fun it was to play in front of a nearly full house.
The division, one Espinosa called “probably the strongest in baseball,” still runs through Philadelphia. And it will, most likely, until someone else earns the division crown. But the Nationals have now won 10 of their last 12 games against the Phillies, dating back to last season and as they make the quick turnaround for Saturday’s game, they do so as the ones firmly planted in first place, not the Phillies.
All thanks to one hit from the last man who’d planned to get it.
“(The games) kind of have a bigger feeling when you’re playing the Phillies,” Johnson said. “I felt they were the best team in baseball last year. To come in and beat them the first time in our house … it was a big game for us, and I’m sure the Phillies felt the same way, because we’re sitting on top.”
“Right now, it’s just one game,” Desmond said. “We’ve got to go out and play them hard tomorrow and we’ve got to play the rest of the games for the rest of the season hard. And hopefully there’s meaningful baseball between both of us toward the end of the year.”