PHILADELPHIA — Yoly Gonzalez arrived to the ballpark early Thursday afternoon. Tonight her son Gio was pitching. Tonight her son would offer his counter-punch to R.A. Dickey’s latest resume line for the Cy Young award, and attempt to bring the Washington Nationals that much closer to a division championship.
She was there early enough to watch batting practice.
So as she stood in the first row of seats at Citizens Bank Park, her son’s teammates milling about the batting cage, Michael Morse approached her to say hello. She reached into the dugout, extending her hand. “Hit a home run tonight, Mike,” she said, a smile on her face.
Gio Gonzalez might not have aided his Cy Young cause significantly Thursday night, a nightmarish three-run first inning before five scoreless muddling his latest pitching line in the Nationals’ 7-3 win, though he did become the franchise’s first 21-game winner.
But Morse did not disappoint.
He hit not one but two home runs, the second a monstrous shot into the Nationals’ bullpen that measured 451 feet and might have gone further had lefty Tom Gorzelanny not made an impressive snag with his cap.
And as he hit them, the Nationals’ magic number to clinch the National League East dropped to three. The lead in the division held firm at four games with the Atlanta Braves winning their fifth straight. The Nationals’ win total on the season reached 95, the most in franchise history since the 1979 Montreal Expos.
“I know if we win three more, we’re in, we win the pennant,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “That’s all I want everybody in that room to figure on.”
The last six weeks — if not the whole injury-plagued year — have been difficult for the Nationals’ slugging left fielder. From a right thumb injury to a bone bruise and a torn sheath in his left wrist, sandwiched around getting hit with a pitch on the outside of his right hand, Morse has hardly been himself. Not to mention the torn right lat muscle that cost him the first six weeks of his season.
A week ago, Johnson listed getting Morse healthy and hitting for power as chief among his requests for the Nationals’ playoff drive. In batting practice on Tuesday, Johnson noticed Morse getting the head of the bat out more, feeling “frisky,” as Johnson put it, with his wrist more stable now than it has been in weeks.
“I guess it’s never too late to get going,” Morse said Thursday night. “I feel good. It’s been a tough year for me, but this team is doing so great that everybody’s been picking up everybody the whole year. I guess that’s what good teams do.”
With the Nationals three wins from a ticket into the National League Division Series, now wouldn’t be the worst time for Morse to continue to feel more like himself.
“It would be perfect [to get hot now],” Morse said. “This is perfect timing right now.”
What had suffered the most from Morse’s hand issues was his power. The same guy who hit 31 home runs in 2011 was going roughly 29 plate appearances between them this season. Since the first hand issue arose in mid-August, 32 games for Morse before he strode to the plate in the second inning, he’d registered just five extra-base hits. He told Johnson he was going to hit 20 home runs by the end of the year. He was at 16 when Thursday’s game ended.
When Morse came to the plate for the first time Thursday night, Gonzalez was in need of help. Given a 1-0 lead on Bryce Harper’s solo home run — the second straight day the 19-year-old rookie had homered in his first at-bat of the day and his 21st of the season — Gonzalez gave it all back and more in a miserable first.
He got two quick outs before trouble struck. Chase Utley singled. Gonzalez issued back-to-back walks to Ryan Howard and John Mayberry Jr. Rookie Darin Ruf hit a bases-clearing double and Gonzalez walked the next batter, Domonic Brown.
On the same day Dickey had walked off the mound at Citi Field with 13 strikeouts and his 20th win of the season, Gonzalez was faltering in his quest for win No. 21.
But then Morse homered, a shot with just enough to get out of hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park, and the two-run lead for the Phillies became one.
“If you looked at me I looked like I had a split personality,” Gonzalez said. “I was talking to myself, I was out there trying to beat myself up, just trying to get in my head a lot, trying to figure it out. I think I tried my best to give the guys what they deserved, it was a quality start, and [kept] them in the game as much as possible.”
When Morse came to the plate in the sixth, things were different. Gonzalez had found the form that had made him a Cy Young candidate in the first place and put up four straight scoreless innings and the Nationals led 4-3 — on an RBI-groundout by none other than the left fielder.
With Adam LaRoche standing on second, Morse saw two cut fastballs, neither breaking the 80-mph mark and an 86-mph four-seam heater. When Tyler Cloyd delivered an 83-mph changeup, Morse was more than ready. He swung. He stared. He slowly began his walk toward first base. ESPN’s home run tracker measured it at 451 feet, the second-longest home run Morse has hit this season and the first one to reach the upper bullpen in Philadelphia since Ryan Zimmerman did it in 2009.
“That ball he hit to right-center was just flat-out crushed,” Johnson said. “It’s happening at a good time.”
As the Nationals’ relievers rose to their feet, Gorzelanny pulled off his cap and reached out, snagging the monster shot and keying an arm-waving, high-five inducing celebration amidst the impatiens flowers.
“Good thing he caught it,” quipped right-hander Tyler Clippard who delivered a much-needed clean eighth inning, his first 1-2-3 frame since Sept. 10. “If he missed it, that would’ve been pretty bad heckling for a few days.”
But there was no heckling, only laughter. They shared hugs and high-fives as St. Louis awaited. They needed three more wins with six to play.