Bryce Harper thrust his right arm into the air and turned back toward the dugout to take a peek at his teammates. He smacked his hands together and shouted ‘Let’s go!’ as he quickly rounded the bases. First base coach Tony Tarasco, all arms and legs in the air, was practically dancing on the bag.
Nearly four hours after their finale against the Pittsburgh Pirates had begun, nearly two hours after manager Davey Johnson had been sent for an early shower with his first ejection of the season, and moments after their high-priced closer was pulled for his ineffectiveness, the Washington Nationals poured over the dugout railing and celebrated.
The scoreboard hardly told the story, but there it was: Nationals 9, Pirates 7. Their streak, six games and 11 days since their last victory, was over, thanks to Harper’s first career walk-off home run.
“Just walking into the clubhouse right now, you’d think we won the World Series or something,” said bench coach Randy Knorr, who took over when Johnson was tossed for arguing balls and strikes after shortstop Ian Desmond vehemently argued a called third strike in the fifth inning.
In a season that has been filled with gut-wrenching defeats and head-smacking moments, the National needed Harper to save them from what might’ve been the worst of them all. They needed Harper to smash Bryan Morris’ 1-1 slider into the center field seats for his first home run since July 1.
“It was pretty cool,” Harper said. “I’m just happy we won the ballgame, I’m serious. I could care less about whether it went over the fence or if it was a double off the wall…I’m just very happy that we won the ballgame.”
The Nationals, careening aimlessly down the tracks of late, seemed to regain a blissful pace on Thursday afternoon. They took a four-run lead early on the back of strong play by Steve Lombardozzi and three errors by the Pirates defense. While it didn’t stay that large all game, they never trailed. And Lombardozzi and Adam LaRoche helped expand it back to four by the time the ninth inning began.
And then, in spite of four months that has already featured so much to forget, they reached a new low.
Rafael Soriano, on to close out a 7-3 game, walked the first two batters and sandwiched two run-scoring singles around an out. Then, with an underachieving offense, an inconsistent and injured back-end of the rotation and an oft-changing setup corps, Knorr had seen enough.
The Nationals’ $28 million closer was pulled for his inability to close out a four-run game and replaced with Ian Krol, a 22-year-old rookie who started the season in Double-A.
“He wasn’t throwing the ball over the plate,” Knorr said. “I figured if you don’t want to be in that mode to shut the game down, I’ll bring somebody else in.”
It was arguably the boldest move of the Nationals’ season.
“It’s not an easy decision to make,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who was 3-for-5. “Nobody ever wants to do that to your closer. I’m glad I don’t have to make those kind of decisions, but Rafi’s been great all year. Krol’s been great all year. It’s unfortunate that it happened that way, but those guys are professionals and I’m sure they’ll be fine.”
Soriano, who had not been pulled from a single game this season, left the clubhouse by the time reporters entered. Krol surrendered a game-tying two-run single to Josh Harrison to bring the rest of Soriano’s damage around, but held the dam there.
He set the Nationals up to have a shot at one more burst of offense on their most productive day in 2½ weeks.
“Kind of emotional going into the bottom of the ninth,” Krol said. “But Harp pulled one out for us. That’s what he does. That’s why we’ve got him on the team. He’s unbelievable.
“I mean, you could feel it. You could just feel it in the dugout. You know something special’s going to happen when you put him in that kind of situation. For me, I could care less about my win record. It’s a team effort, and that’s what we showed today.”