Nearly five hours after the Washington Nationals’ series finale with the Arizona Diamondbacks was supposed to have begun, manager Davey Johnson ambled into the press conference room in the bowels of Nationals Park and sat down with the look of a man who’d just lived through a marathon.
“That was a tough one,” Johnson said of the Nationals’ 3-2 loss to the Diamondbacks in 11 innings. “Where do you want to begin?”
The best place to start was probably the end, when Diamondbacks shortstop Didi Gregorius dropped down a textbook squeeze bunt in the top of the 11th inning to score pinch-runner A.J. Pollock from third base and give the Diamondbacks their first lead in 16 innings.
“When he gets ahead 2-1 you can expect it,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. “But even if we knew they were going to do it, the way he put the bunt down right there nobody was going to get that guy.”
Gregorius dropped a perfectly-placed bunt down on the right side of the infield. By the time catcher Jhonatan Solano fielded the ball, Gregorius was in safe at first and Pollock was on his way to the dugout as the Diamondbacks eventual winning run.
“When that play is executed right it’s pretty much unstoppable especially when the guy on third base is obviously really fast,” Zimmerman said. “Unless you want to completely bring me and (first baseman Adam LaRoche) in and basically give up the whole right and left side of the infield, it’s pretty much unstoppable.”
“That was a blueprint,” Johnson said. “You can’t lay it out there any better than he did. It was just one of those things. It was that kind of a ballgame. A couple home runs and then a safety squeeze beats us.”
Ah yes, the home runs. To get there, first we must address the pitchers duel that Nationals Park played host to for much of the afternoon.
Six days ago, after a brief moment of stretching on the mound had sounded alarms in theNationals’ dugout, Strasburg implored his manager and his coaches to trust him. He was not a kid anymore, he said, and he should be given a little leeway to work through things.
Thursday, as an overcast sky and an hourlong rain delay gave way to an early-evening sun, the Nationals sent Strasburg to the mound in search of their first three-game sweep since April in a marquee pitching matchup that pitted him against stellar Diamondbacks lefty Patrick Corbin.
The game would be decided long after both pitchers departed, the bullpens keeping up the duel until the 11th inning. The result dropped the Nationals back to .500 for the 17th time this season at 39-39 as they continued to hover over the mark of mediocrity.
“We just need to get a little something going,” Johnson said. “Eight hits, two runs, 11 innings? Pitching did OK, we’ve just been kind of sputtering on scoring runs.”
So perhaps the most compelling part of the day for them came earlier. When, in his own way, after the Diamondbacks tied things up on Aaron Hill’s home run, manager Johnson offered Strasburg a little bit of the trust he’d been seeking in his previous start.
At 102 pitches the Nationals’ bullpen was dormant as they batted in the bottom of the sixth inning. It had been more than a month since Strasburg had thrown over 100 pitches in a game, an injury-shortened start and a stint on the disabled list contributing that drought, and he’d just faced his toughest test. He’d surrendered the Nationals’ 2-0 lead, but he did not put them in a hole.
If perhaps without the words, Johnson challenged him to give him another inning. Strasburg did.
“I’m kind of past the whole going six innings (thing),” Strasburg said. “I kind of want to get used to going seven, eight or hopefully nine someday.
“(The game-tying home run) was just a pitch that came back over the plate, he put a pretty good swing on it. (Earlier I) threw a breaking ball for a ball and missed my spot, one pitch and it would’ve been different. But you know, you learn from it and I’ll know how to attack him in that situation a little bit better next time.”
Unfortunately for the man who is among the league’s least supported pitchers, he could not ensure that that effort — and perhaps that learning experience — did not go to waste. He did, however, have an interesting take on the fact that his 2.7 runs of support per game entering Thursday is the lowest in the major leagues.
“I think (the lack of run support) is making me a better pitcher,” Strasburg said. “And I’ve learned a lot already. I think the one thing I learned is that you can’t go out there and try to do too much, you can’t go out there and pitch to the scoreboard. Once you do that, you’re done.”
The National League West-leading Diamondbacks came into Nationals Park this week providing a stiff challenge to the Nationals’ claims that they were moving in the right direction. Was that the direction of becoming a winning team again? If it was, the Diamondbacks would surely make them earn their next steps on that path.
After the Nationals took the first two of the series, Strasburg and Corbin represented the enticing getaway day finale. They finished with similar fates.
Strasburg allowed two runs off six hits and two walks in seven innings with four strikeouts. He needed 113 pitches, 76 of which were strikes. Corbin allowed two runs off five hits and two walks with six strikeouts. He needed 111 pitches, 76 of which were strikes.
Both gave up their runs on the aforementioned homers. Neither finished in line for a decision.
Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond struck first, his two-run shot clanking off the back wall of the visitors’ bullpen in left field with two outs in the fourth. It was Desmond’s 13th home run of the season — and the 10th that came when the Nationals were locked in a tie game, giving them the lead. Corbin offered Desmond a 2-2 slider and the shortstop did not miss it.
Diamondbacks second baseman Aaron Hill’s came two innings later, a 1-0 fastball that came back over the plate, and it landed in a similar spot to Desmond’s. “Kind of a nothing pitch,” as Johnson put it.
The scoreboard was choc-full of zeroes after that until Miguel Montero doubled to open the 11th inning, Stammen issued a one-out walk to Jason Kubel and Gregorius bunted Pollock home.
As a light standard over section 226 in right field crackled, sparked and caught fire because of what the team said was a minor technical malfunction in the bottom of the inning, the Nationals trudged off the field.
They won the series. They won four games on this seven-game homestand. Still, they left for a weekend in New York not much further from where they were when they arrived home a week ago.
“We’re not going to get to where we need to get in one homestand,” Zimmerman said. “We’re not going to win 15 games in a row. It’s the big leagues. It’s hard to win. We won the series, we split a four-game series against a good team. It’s a good homestand.”