Earlier this week, as the Washington Nationals were in the process of securing 10 straight one-run or extra-inning victories, manager Davey Johnson stood inside his office, wiped his brow, and admitted with a smile that he loved a one-run win as much as the next guy. But, he added, “it’d be nice to have a laugher” every now and then, too.
Thursday night, his team went out and tagged Chicago Cubs starter Matt Garza for seven runs in the third inning and took an eight-run lead by the fifth that looked impenetrable. Through the sixth and seventh innings, it was the Cubs who were in hysterics. Chicago had scored eight unanswered, and Washington had blown the largest lead in the 42-year history of the Nationals/Montreal Expos franchise.
It would take 2 ½ more innings — and one more body blow from each side to tie the game at 9 — before the Cubs would complete the improbable comeback. The winning run in the 10-9 debacle scored when Darwin Barney doubled to right field off Henry Rodriguez with two outs in the ninth, scoring pinch hitter Tony Campana.
Realistically, the game was lost long before Rodriguez had even stirred in the Nationals’ bullpen.
In the sixth inning, Johnson attempted to stretch his starting pitcher longer than his instincts told him he should — an attempt to save an oft-used bullpen for one night. Instead, Livan Hernandez left a sinker high that pinch hitter Blake DeWitt clanked off the right-field foul pole for a three-run homer to make it 8-6.
“My bullpen was a bit beat up, and I had confidence that Livo could get me six,” Johnson said. “I take full blame. I looked at the pinch hitters, and I said, ‘Oh, I’m just going to stay with Livo. Livo will get me an out,’ and boy he left one right over the plate to DeWitt. That was the big blow, as far as I’m concerned, that was the momentum shifter.”
“He stuck with his horse,” said shortstop Ian Desmond, who, along with the rest of the Nationals’ starting lineup had at least one hit. “Livo’s been a horse for us all year, no reason to take him out right there. Ninety percent of the time Livo bounces back. He left a couple balls up. DeWitt’s a good hitter. He stayed inside of a good pitch and was able to get enough barrel on it to get it out of there.”
One inning later, after Carlos Pena sent lefty reliever Sean Burnett’s first pitch over the out-of-town scoreboard in right field. It was the second home run Burnett has allowed to a left-handed hitter this season.
“It was 8-0,” Hernandez said. “We’ve got maybe 99 percent [chance] to win the game when it’s 8-0. One bad inning and it changed the whole game. It’s baseball. Sometimes baseball is crazy like that.”
Until that point, it had been a Nationals hit parade. Starting with a single by Hernandez to begin the third, the next seven Nats reached base. By the time it was over, Garza had been chased with seven runs and no outs in the inning. It seemed as though the Nationals would cruise to their first four-game sweep since October 1-4, 2009 and guarantee themselves no worse than a .500 record heading into the All-Star break.
Instead they left Nationals Park with an epic collapse.
“It’s tough loss today,” Hernandez said. “We’ve got to come back tomorrow and win. That’s the only way we can leave this game in the past.”