ATLANTA | For eight innings Wednesday night, the Washington Nationals followed a familiar script. They squandered too many opportunities with runners on base and in scoring position. They produced neither timely hits nor heady base running and looked poised to waste another solid pitching performance.
But for a team that has clawed its way back to .500, the Nationals will head home from a nine-game divisional road trip having done no worse than winning two of three series in spite of all of those negatives. When Alex Cora tied the game with a two-run double with one out in the ninth, the Nationals were a team renewed.
By the time Ian Desmond sent the game-winning two-RBI double into left field in the 11th inning, the Nationals had used 19 players, including every position player on their roster and all but two relievers and three starting pitchers. Tyler Clippard would make it 20 a few minutes — and a two-run homer from Jayson Werth — later, needing just 12 pitches to seal a 7-3 victory over the Atlanta Braves.
"Twenty guys got in, and 20 guys delivered and that's what we needed," Desmond said. "We needed that total effort. Words can't describe how much we needed that win right there.
"After we took care of San Francisco, we knew we had a big road trip coming and we could have easily folded. We could have thrown the cards in. We didn't. We kept on battling, and we knew how important this was. We have to show these guys that we can play with them, and I think we did that tonight."
Through the first eight innings, the Nationals had been quieted all too easily. They'd stranded seven runners, gone 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position and squandered perhaps their best scoring opportunity when Jerry Hairston Jr. was thrown out on an attempted steal of third to end the seventh inning.
It was magnified when the Braves' 2-1 lead built off Nationals starter John Lannan was expanded to 3-1 moments later on Eric Hinske's home run off Doug Slaten.
But in the ninth inning, the Nationals flipped the script. Instead of wasting a leadoff single by Laynce Nix, a one-out base hit by Hairston and a walk to Matt Stairs (pinch-run for by pitcher Jason Marquis) that loaded the bases, Nationals manager Jim Riggleman turned to Cora. The veteran utility man, who hits in the cage in the second inning of each game he doesn't start, working on situational hitting with bullpen catcher Julian Martinez, was looking fastball in a 2-1 count.
He didn't happen to practice hitting two-RBI doubles Wednesday, but he got the fastball he wanted and the Nationals got a fresh start. Sean Burnett and Drew Storen, who each pitched scoreless innings, would ensure they'd get another chance. Desmond wasn't about to squander it.
"I just wasn't going to let the opportunity pass again," said Desmond, who then stole third and scored on Werth's two-run shot that put things out of reach.
"I just knew that I had to deliver ... That's baseball. You always get another chance. One hundred and sixty-two games, 600-something at-bats, it's never over. There was too much positive in that game to let another opportunity pass."
The Nationals have their work cut out for them when it comes to distancing themselves from a history of futility. In order to remove the label of National League East doormats, they can't continue to play the role.
"We've got way too much positive going right now to think about anything that happened last year or any time in the past," Desmond said.
But for much of Wednesday night they weren't doing that. They were playing their usual part. Contributions from nearly every member of the team changed that.
"That," Lannan said, "was awesome. That's just one of those games right there that shows how good we can be."
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