CINCINNATI — There was a time, perhaps not so long ago, when the Washington Nationals would’ve been bogged down by what had happened. When, younger and less experienced, they’d have been unable to clear their minds and keep themselves open to the possibility, instead, of what could still happen.
Ian Desmond made two costly errors on Saturday afternoon at Great American Ball Park. Wilson Ramos stood behind the plate mere feet from the spot that his 2012 season ended. Both could’ve let their minds wander toward the negative, or even dwelled there.
But in a game rife with as much tension as you’ll find for April 6, a game that seemed to slowly slip away from the Nationals — as opposed to the type of shellacking they got on Friday — they didn’t. They stood tall until the 11th inning, when both hit key home runs in the Nationals’ wild 7-6 victory.
Desmond’s broke a 5-5 tie that’d arrived in gut-wrenching fashion for the Nationals when closer Rafael Soriano blew a two-run lead in the ninth. Ramos’ stood as the eventual winning run.
In a ballpark where 340 feet is sometimes all that’s needed for a homer, Desmond and Ramos combined to hit balls 877 feet in one frame.
“I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like if we would’ve lost,” Desmond said, standing in front of his locker having hardly had time to take his spikes off after three-and-a-half hours on the field. “I know myself. It wouldn’t have been an easy day.”
The question was posed then if his home run brought at least a little bit of atonement for the shortstop’s earlier sins — a wild throw that sailed well wide of first base in the fourth, and a ground ball through his legs in the eighth — that led to two Reds runs.
“Not for myself,” Desmond said, conflicted over the role of hero when he felt responsible for putting the team in an adverse situation. “For the team. These guys are getting me ground balls, and I look like I’ve never fielded a ground ball before. It’s tough.”
Behind a strong six-inning start for Ross Detwiler, making his season debut, the Nationals took an early lead. They watched Bryce Harper club his third home run of the young season, a two-run shot that scored Jayson Werth in the third inning, and as Wilson Ramos added his first of the season in the sixth, another two-run homer.
They padded their lead with a homer from Werth in the seventh. They had their bullpen lined up, with Craig Stammen deliberately saved in case of emergency.
They were sailing toward evening a series that began in embarrassing fashion with the most lopsided loss in team history a night before.
“Strange things happen here,” said manager Davey Johnson, explaining his somewhat prophetic comment to pitching coach Steve McCatty in the fifth inning that he needed Detwiler to go six so that Stammen would remain available.
Strange. Like watching a strong Reds lineup chip away, and chip away, and chip away at one of the league’s best bullpens until a four-run lead was nothing but dust.
Strange. Like seeing Drew Storen strike out the fearsome Joey Votto on three pitches to open the eighth inning, and then allow hits to the next three batters. Watching one of the league’s best defensive teams a season ago commit two errors on one play when a ball skipped through Desmond’s legs and Harper threw it wildly toward home plate.
Strange. Like seeing Rafael Soriano’s command be off “just a little bit,” as Ramos put it, and having it cost him dearly. Shin-Soo Choo homered to cut the lead to one, Votto tripled with one out and scored when Soriano’s first pitch to the next batter went wildly wide of home plate.
“I felt like it was our game,” Werth said. “This has been two crazy games… I felt like today we were in command, and then we weren’t, and then we were.”
Before the game on Saturday, Ramos said he had thought about the fact that he was coming back here, to Cincinnati, where his 2012 season ended with his body crumbling into a heap behind home plate. But he thought about it in a way that made him even more proud of how far he’d come since he tore up his knee last May.
He didn’t want to talk about it anymore. He didn’t want to think about it anymore.
“I want to turn the page,” he said, throwing his arms out, as if to brush it off. He’d rather think about the second multi-homer game of his career, he acknowledged with a smile.
“When mistakes happen you have to let it go,” Desmond said. “Nobody likes to make errors. I can’t equate it to anything, but it’s brutal. Making an error is brutal. I’m telling the pitchers ‘Hey, give me ground balls,’ and then booting them around.
“You’ve got to deal with it and bounce back, keep on moving forward. Not to pat myself on the back but I felt like I did a good job of that today. I obviously wasn’t happy with myself but I kind of put it behind me and was able to move forward.”
Both of them were, in a sense.
When the 11th inning began, the Reds summoned J.J. Hoover. Desmond sent his fifth pitch into the upper deck in left field. Two batters later, Ramos walked his way out of the batter’s box — his home run going so far to center field he knew there was no chance of it staying in the yard.
Stammen, the hometown kid pitching in front of between 20 and 30 members of his friends and family, closed it out with his second inning of work.
Music streamed through the speakers in the visitors’ clubhouse. They could still win the series on Sunday.
“What I liked about the game is we continued to fight,” Werth said. “There was no let down. We still had a lot of fight. Desi’s homer was huge. Ramos’ homer was even bigger.”