The ball sat on the infield grass, to the left of first base, and did not move. To the right, the Washington Nationals celebrated their 76th victory of the season. To the left, the Atlanta Braves walked quietly off the field.
The ball sat where Braves‘ second baseman Dan Uggla left it after Chad Tracy sent it toward him and Danny Espinosa scampered home from third base with Kurt Suzuki hesitating on his way to second. Where Uggla had allowed it to rest after maddeningly bobbling it, trying to get enough of a handle to attempt a double play on Suzuki and Tracy but watching Espinosa score before he could.
It sat there, the quiet symbol of the defining play in a 5-4, 13-inning Nationals victory that would be more than just another in a long line of wins this season.
The clock on the outfield scoreboard taunted them. As Monday turned to Tuesday and the pivotal game between the two best teams in the National League East wore on, the white numbers glared out at the players on the field. Four hours and 27 minutes they’d been going at it, four-run outbursts for either side a distant memory, as were the performances of starters Jordan Zimmermann and Tim Hudson. Forgotten by the time the Gatorade was being dumped on Tracy’s head.
A win for the Nationals meant six games between them in the standings and the surety of being no fewer than four games up when the series comes to a close on Wednesday night. It meant 30 games over .500. That much closer to a playoff spot.
A loss could change things.
“Knowing we’re six games up, (Tuesday) we come out and play our game knowing we can’t be more than four back,” Tracy said after his ninth pinch-hit RBI of the season. “It’s huge. They know that, too. They were looking to come in here and try to do some damage and walk away with their heads held high. Hopefully now they can’t.”
How much could a loss have altered the course of these two possible divergent squads?
Nationals manager Davey Johnson said he finally saw some jitters from his young ballclub, acknowledging the weight of this game. But it was a learning experience they needed as the season surges closer to the elusive playoff spot they’ve been chasing.
Zimmermann was rushing his delivery, flying open early, and labored through five innings. ” I was terrible,” he said matter-of-factly and admitting his adrenaline was flowing on high at the start of the game.
Balls that would often be fielded effortlessly, like two thrown to Ian Desmond on a stolen base and a feed from Danny Espinosa, weren’t. Strike zones were expanded and 12 runners were left on base as 11 scoreless innings between the first and the 13th began to pile up for Washington
“We made high-energy mistakes,” Johnson said. “And (we’re) trying to crush the ball every at-bat. More urgency. All that’s just playoff mode.”
“I think there was a little bit of a more-important feel to this game,” said right-hander Craig Stammen, who gave the Nationals two innings as their final reliever of the night. “A lot of us have never played in an important baseball game since college or high school or maybe the minor leagues. I think it’s important to get a little nervous or anxious, a little more adrenaline going on. I think it’s definitely important to play games like that.”
Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche each came close to ending it with balls to the right field warning track, scraping Jason Heyward’s back against the Nationals' bullpen fence. But there was no longball cure Monday night. Instead avoiding an error became pivotal. The first sloppy play, it seemed, would end it. When the Braves played the infield in on Suzuki’s single and Chipper Jones kicked it halfway across the diamond, Espinosa moved from first to third to setup the winning run. That was mistake No. 1. Uggla’s was the kicker.