The veritable silence that had descended on Nationals Park on Thursday night was as stifling as the muggy, 95-degree air that sat over it all day. Matt Cain was dealing. The Nationals weren't producing. A ho-hum game that would fall into the "can't win 'em all" category in a series already decided seemed an all-but-certain outcome.
And somehow, as the clock inched past 10 p.m., the Nationals were the ones mobbing each other on the field, pushing the improbable out of their lexicon once again and celebrating a 6-5 victory.
A shortstop who'd rarely — if ever — hit opposite field home runs, crushed one. The second baseman, who's spent much of his sophomore season in the major leagues maligned for his production from the left side of the plate, followed with his own. A crowd that had been lulled to sleep awoke. A game that had been left for dead became won on the legs of a first baseman who constantly pokes fun at his own lack of speed.
The Nats had the bases loaded in a ninth inning that started with a pinch-hit double by rookie Tyler Moore. They held their collective breath as Adam LaRoche hit a tailor-made double-play ground ball to second base, put his head down and ran about as fast as his legs could carry him.
"Hopefully Adam's fast enough," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman thought as he watched from second base. "Actually, I know he's not fast enough. Hopefully they mess it up."
"Mess it up," thought shortstop Ian Desmond. "Mess it up. Mess it up."
The ball bounced before first baseman Brandon Belt's glove. He couldn't get a handle on it to end the game. The Giants messed it up. The Nationals won.
From the home clubhouse in Atlanta, the third-place Braves hung on every movement. A groan was let out, reporters said, when LaRoche crossed the bag. A few expletives followed. As LaRoche walked off the field his son, Drake, looked him right in the eye and told him, "Dad, you got lucky."
"Those are the things that have happened to us this year," Zimmerman said. "We got some opportunities, we've caught some breaks, and more importantly, we've taken advantage of those breaks. Good teams do that."
The Nationals will head into the All-Star break on Sunday knowing not only are they one of those good teams, but they're one of the best teams in the major leagues. In the last 10 years, all but three of the 37 teams that possessed a .595 winning percentage or better on July 5 would make the playoffs in this year's expanded format. The Nationals (48-32) are at .600.
"I mean, if you still had doubt going into today," said left-hander Ross Detwiler who survived five innings, allowing just three earned runs despite 11 hits and two walks. "[We've] been doing it all year long. It's unbelievable. This team just doesn't quit."
The Giants, wearing the New York symbol of their past on a 1924 throwback night, entered this series against the Nationals 74-1 since the start of the 2011 season when leading by three runs. The Nationals swept them and twice made that stat an irrelevant one in the span of three games.
"We've played Texas and we've played Anaheim," said Giants second baseman Ryan Theriot, summing up the lost series for San Francisco. "That's two really good teams. In my opinion, these guys are right up there."
Cain had dominated the Nationals for six innings when Desmond stepped to the plate with one out in the seventh inning and drilled the first pitch he saw into the right-field seats. It made a 5-1 game a 5-2 game. A step in the right direction, sure, but a mountain still stood for the Nationals to climb.
In the dugout, Bryce Harper turned to LaRoche and told him, "We're going to win this game. Just be ready for it."
Espinosa took Cain to 2-1 before he laced his own into the first row of seats above the out-of-town scoreboard. 5-3.
In the game's final three innings, the Nationals notched eight hits after getting just four in the first six. They exposed a Giants bullpen whose work to this point had been nearly letter-perfect, and they had no shortage of heroes to laud in a raucous post-game celebration that involved several Nationals acting like deer while LaRoche, an avid hunter, mimed shooting them with a bow and arrow.
Mark DeRosa legged out a double to keep their seventh-inning rally alive. Steve Lombardozzi followed with an infield single. Harper laid off several inside pitches before lofting a double into left field. 5-4.
And in the ninth, the Nationals forced the Giants to rush. Lombardozzi hustled down the line on a bunt to move Moore to third base and Giants closer Santiago Casilla couldn't get a handle on the ball. Harper worked a 3-1 count and then laced a single through the right side to tie the game. Even LaRoche, who joked he'd "lost count" how many games he'd won on his speed alone, didn't concede when his ground ball looked to be a surefire inning-ending double play.
"You hope for the best," he said. "You know you've got to get on it. They've got to catch it, throw it, catch it, throw it, catch it, there's a lot that can happen. It's not a great feeling [seeing the ground ball] — until something like that happens."
Nationals manager Davey Johnson sat down at his postgame press conference with a wide grin, apologizing to reporters for all the re-writes. As he walked into his office, general manager Mike Rizzo followed him in. "That was fun," Johnson told him. Rizzo nodded. "That was fun," he said.
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