As the clock raced toward 11 p.m., Davey Johnson walked into the interview room with tired eyes and, somehow, a victory.
“I’m surprised there’s anybody here,” the Washington Nationals’ manager said.
These are the sort of games the cool air of September brings. Two teams, long out of contention and bulging with rookie call-ups, played in front of vast swaths of empty seats at Nationals Park.
So perhaps it was fitting for Friday’s game to end on a routine play gone wrong in the bottom of the 11th inning, as the Nationals edged the Houston Astros, 4-3.
Dramatics were as absent as the crowd, announced at 18,307. Instead, Jayson Werth chopped a ball to third baseman Jimmy Paredes with two on. In the dugout, Johnson rooted for a bad hop. Parades, one of 15 rookies among the 33 men on the Astros’ roster, snagged the ball and tried for the force out at second.
But Paredes’ throw bounced into right field. Ryan Zimmerman, who had slowed at third, jogged home. He could’ve walked.
“I’m used to a little more of a comfort zone,” Johnson said. “With all the young players … it’s been that kind of a struggle. Everybody’s trying to probably do a little too much.”
Signs of September covered the Nationals’ lineup, from rookie Steve Lombardozzi at shortstop and hitting leadoff to rookie first baseman Chris Marrero to a third rookie, left-hander Tommy Milone, making his second major league start.
Milone insisted he was calm, something he didn’t feel in last week’s debut against the New York Mets.
Despite underwhelming stuff, he wasn’t afraid to pitch inside to right-handed hitters. Of the eight hits he allowed over 5 2/3 innings, two were played awkwardly by Michael Morse in left field. Few balls were hit hard.
“I was a lot more comfortable,” Milone said. “[I was] throwing the ball where I wanted to. [Before] I had a general idea of where it would end up.”
Milone retired nine of the first 10 men he faced. But problems surfaced the second time through the lineup, something he wants to work on. He left the ball over the plate. He didn’t work two-strike counts. His fastball and changeup, effective in the first three innings, lost sharpness.
Johnson fought and eventually overcame his desire to leave Milone in the game to have the opportunity to corral his first major league victory.
Marrero, Milone’s teammate at Triple-A Syracuse, did his part to keep the Nationals in the game. The former first-round pick, getting an extended look at first base this month, lashed a 3-2 pitch into the left-center field gap in the seventh off starter Bud Norris. The double brought home a run to tie the game at 3-3 and set the stage for Werth’s game-ending ground ball.
That encouraged Johnson, who admitted to trouble sleeping because of the team’s ongoing offensive woes.
“I don’t ever want to feel comfortable,” said Marrero, 12 games into his major league career. “I’m still learning.”
That’s what September is all about.