PHILADELPHIA — In order to find themselves in the situation they did on Wednesday night at Citizens Bank Park — watching Ian Desmond’s first career grand slam sail into the left field seats in the 11th inning to give them a 6-2 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies — the Washington Nationals had to tiptoe around the sea of lackluster performances that dotted their first 70 games of the season.
A team with expectations to be among the game’s elite, perhaps even the standard-bearers, was left stewing over another loss late on Tuesday. How, they were asked, do they avoid drowning in these struggles?
They faced the unseemly possibility of falling into third place with another loss on Wednesday, one that would drop them three games below .500 for the first time this season, in addition to sealing a potential sweep at the hands of their rivals to the northeast.
Their most seasoned player coined the mentality, so eloquently, as one in which they must simply “show up tomorrow ready to eat somebody’s face.” But as has happened to them so often this season, instead they seemed flat, ineffective and downright useless for the better part of eight innings against Kyle Kendrick and the Phillies.
And then, as Jonathan Papelbon entered a game in which Gio Gonzalez had been nearly perfect after its first two batters with nothing to show for it, Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman noticed the Phillies’ closer was a few ticks light on the radar gun — this being his third straight day of work and all.
Then, for the second time in three nights, the Nationals made the nearly-infallible Papelbon falter.
“You know, we had a sense. We had a sense that we could get to him,” Werth said. “He’s tough. He really is. But definitely seeing him (the last few) nights helped.”
Werth stepped to the plate with the tying run in Denard Span on second and slapped his second consecutive RBI-single into left field. Now the Nationals had the go-ahead run at third base as Werth turned things over to Desmond.
Batting behind Werth in the lineup’s sixth spot, the shortstop struck out on three pitches. Swinging in his usual violent manner, he left the runners on base and ended the threat. He slammed his helmet to the ground, flailing his leg at it for a little extra equipment vengeance, and shook his head as he made his way out to the field.
“I was kind of bringing down the line all night,” Desmond said.
He stewed over the at-bat, his third strikeout of the night and the Nationals’ latest example of offensive futility. And then he let it go.
“Guys come over and say, ‘Does this guy swing this hard all the time?’” manager Davey Johnson said. “I say, ‘Yeah, he doesn’t know any other way.’ But he’s an awfully good player and he’s only gonna get better.”
Two innings later, seconds after getting the benefit of a borderline inside pitch that could’ve easily been called strike three, Desmond shortened his swing and uncorked the game-winning stroke.
“To be honest, I threw a little prayer up there just to take the emotion away,” Desmond said. “The at-bat before we had a little momentum going and I wanted to come through. But off Papelbon I’ve only got (a small) amount of at-bats off him. The situation’s really tough so I think I was just a little bit hard on myself after the fact.
“I was just praying, ‘Give me another chance, give me another chance.’”
It was a scene unlike many the Nationals have witnessed this season. As Desmond, who came to the plate following Zimmerman’s one-out double off Michael Stutes, the Phillies intentional walk of Adam LaRoche and not-so-intentional walk of Werth, rounded the bases, the Nationals’ dugout erupted.
For the first time in several days, there were smiles to be shared during the game.
“It was like how I remember it from last year,” said catcher Kurt Suzuki, who’d stood on third base with one out in the previous inning and been left there by more ineffective Nationals’ offense. “It was pretty exciting and awesome. Everybody was excited.”
It was, of course, just one win. It did not jump the Nationals’ standing in the division up significantly. It did not even make them a .500 baseball team. It simply salvaged a 4-5 road trip from ending 3-6 and gave the Nationals a happy bus ride back to D.C.
It brought with it more hope that a sustained run of success was coming and, for one night, helped the Nationals right the ship.
“Really, we got lucky,” Werth said. “We stole this one. It was one of those games that you need if you’re going to go on to win the division. You need a bunch of wins like this.”
“It was a big win,” Johnson added. “We really needed it. The Phillies, we need to show them that we’re still hanging around. Good to get home. It’s been a long road trip.”