The scene was an unfamiliar one. The Washington Nationals, mobbing a teammate on the infield at Nationals Park after a wild, comeback, walk-off victory. In the first two months of the season, they had not done it a single time.
In the first two months of the season the Nationals had scored precisely two runs in the ninth inning. Total. In all 57 of their games combined. Their comeback victories were few and far between.
Perhaps that was what made Tuesday night’s 3-2 victory over the New York Mets — a win that was sealed when Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche and Ian Desmond strung together two doubles and a single to open the ninth, before Steve Lombardozzi’s sacrifice fly ended it — so important.
Perhaps it was simply the fact that the Nationals, in spite of another sterling pitching performance from Jordan Zimmermann, had won a game they hit poorly enough in the first eight innings not to.
“Guys were chattering it up: ‘Let’s go, let’s go!’” manager Davey Johnson said of the dugout in the ninth. “Typical ballgame where we didn’t get much going. We didn’t swing the bats.
“Everybody was kind of disappointed we weren’t doing better up until that ninth inning. So it was good one. I’ll sleep better tonight after a hard day.”
For the Nationals, it was arguably their most tumultuous day yet.
When the clubhouse opened on Tuesday afternoon, the Nationals were greeting two new members in Anthony Rendon and Ian Krol, and welcoming back a healthy one in Jayson Werth.
In opposite corners of the clubhouse, though, Danny Espinosa’s locker sat barren and empty as he reluctantly headed to the disabled list. Zach Duke’s stall was untouched and Henry Rodriguez quietly packed his belongings. Both were designated for assignment.
They were a slightly different team, then, when they took the field on Tuesday night. And yet nothing much changed for one of the worst offenses in the league through the game’s first eight innings. They had a little production early, when Desmond hit a solo homer in the second, and hardly any in the innings that followed.
The Nationals entered the game with the worst collective on-base percentage in the major leagues. While he sat out for a month with a strained right hamstring, that was one thing Werth noticed most. “We’re not getting on base like we should,” Werth said Tuesday night.
And then Zimmerman doubled to open the ninth off Mets closer Bobby Parnell, a double that sent the Nationals’ third baseman sprinting around first base knowing it was former teammate Rick Ankiel and his cannon arm in center field who was going after his hit. LaRoche followed a wild pitch that moved Zimmerman to third with a hard single to right field. And suddenly the game was tied.
Desmond had ground out with the bases loaded to end the sixth. As he stood at shortstop in the later innings, he tried to remind himself to keep his faith steadfast and know that another opportunity would come. When it did, he wouldn’t squander it.
His double, the “big hit,” as Johnson called it, kept the line moving. An intentional walk brought Lombardozzi to the plate with the bases loaded. The Nationals’ young utility man had never experienced a walk-off RBI in his career. He tried to remain calm.
He was given precisely one pitch in the strike zone — and he swung at all but two of the eight Parnell offered him, fouling off four. “He usually only swings at strikes,” Johnson said. “I think he was swinging at anything thrown up there that wasn’t over his head.”
“Those are the situations you want to be in,” Lombardozzi said. “Those are the situations you dream of. You’re not trying to do much, trying to get big. He throws pretty firm, he was up in the zone. I was just trying to get something I can handle and get the runner home.”
As Lombardozzi turned and watched, knowing Mike Baxter was going to catch his fly ball, he squared his eyes on home plate and tried to will LaRoche in safely. For one night, the Nationals got runners on, got them over, and got them in.
As simple as it sounds, they have struggled with the execution repeatedly this season.
“There in the ninth, we showed it,” Werth said. “We got guys on and we got them in, in a big situation. Hopefully we can build on that. I’m looking forward to the rest of the season with these guys — and I expect big things.”
The word momentum was one used often inside a Nationals clubhouse pulsing with energy Tuesday night. Maybe this will be the win they need to propel them. Maybe this will shake them out of their inconsistent doldrums. They’re a .500 baseball team again. Tomorrow is a new day.
For the first time since Game 4 of the National League Division Series, the Nationals poured over the railings of their dugout and piled on one another in celebration.
“It’s what it’s all about,” Werth said. “That’s why you play. For those moments right there.”
“I was out of breath,” Lombardozzi said. “I think I blacked out for a little bit there.”