MILWAUKEE — The question was not how many body blows could the Washington Nationals’ pitchers take before they simply collapsed. It was how many would the Milwaukee Brewers throw at them on a sunny Sunday afternoon before the Nationals‘ offense finally made good on their early-season promises that one day the pitching wouldn’t have to carry them.
When they reached that point, the Nationals snatched an 11-10, 11-inning victory from the grip of defeat. When Roger Bernadina’s home run gave them a sliver of life in the eighth inning and two once-infallible closers conspired to set their flickering flame ablaze, it became only a matter of time.
“There was plenty of times we could’ve laid down and let them take it,” said left-hander Gio Gonzalez whose ragged six innings felt like another day’s work by the time it was over. “But we fought, all the way until the end.”
Not all of the 44,663 who packed Miller Park could watch the entire flight of Michael Morse’s ninth-inning home run. There were only so many who had an unobstructed view of his line drive to the right-field corner that carried and carried and carried before dropping over the 348-foot marker. But Morse could see it. He knew. His arms flew out to his sides as he ran down the first base line before he raised his left one in triumph and pounded himself on the head rounding the bag. The Nationals, left for dead so many times, had tied it 9-9 in the ninth.
“You never know,” Morse said. “You never know what this game has in store for you until the last out.”
Two innings later, Morse laced a two-run double down the left-field line to give the Nationals‘ their first lead since the first inning and enough cushion to finally seal a series-clinching victory that had seemed more than improbable a few innings before.
The images the Nationals would remember from their four-day tour to the land of cheese and brats were ones of jubilation. Of taking advantage of the second of six straight series against teams with losing records to go 6-1 on a road trip that began in New York and keep their four-game lead over the Atlanta Braves in the NL East standings.
But it could have been different.
They could have been reliving the image of Gio Gonzalez with his knees on the infield grass, hands clasped in exasperation above his head as Steve Lombardozzi argued correctly about a blown call. Snapping his glove upon the return of the ball after one of his four unintentional walks. Barking on his way off the mound, turning every few steps to offer an unfriendly gaze at first base umpire Tim Welke.
“I wouldn’t want to change a damn thing I did today,” Gonzalez said later, agreeing with manager Davey Johnson that he felt he pitched better than the results (four earned runs off five hits, five walks and two hit batters) indicated. “If I could take back something from the day it’d definitely be to cleanup a little bit of my composure, maybe take the game one step at a time instead of the whole game spiraling like it was.”
Or of Ryan Mattheus, bouncing on the mound as he turned to watch the flight of the first of three home runs, and cringing as Bernie Brewer, the team’s mascot, made his way down the yellow slide suspended in left field.
“That’s just a great job of a team picking me up when I let them down,” Mattheus said. “We probably shouldn’t have played as many innings tonight. And that guy shouldn’t have went down that slide as many times as he did. But that’s what good teams do, and they picked me up today.”
For so long, the Nationals built their 61-40 record on the backs of a pitching staff that rarely got the run support it deserved but rarely made it an issue. The offense promised they’d awake eventually. Promised their power arms wouldn’t have to carry them the entire way.
Perhaps there was no better example of it than Sunday, when they allowed 10 runs and still, after more than four hours of grueling baseball, came away with a win as the Nationals battered the Brewers‘ beleaguered bullpen for nine of their 11 runs.
On a day when they often looked discombobulated and frustrated after blowing an early lead and, at one point, faced a four-run deficit, they still managed to be the ones high-fiving on the middle of the diamond, heading home for a well-earned day off 21 games over .500.
“I don’t know about y’all but I’ve got a few more gray hairs,” Nationals manager Davey Johnson quipped. “I’m telling you. I’m worn out.”
I’m glad we’ve got tomorrow off for me, not for the guys.
“That was a wild one.”