- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Denard Span thrust his right arm in the air and pointed his fingers to the sky. He leaped into the arms of onrushing teammates, who poured over the dugout railing.

Jayson Werth ripped Span’s batting helmet off. Ian Desmond snatched the center fielder’s jersey and tugged at it. Their celebration poured into left field, a mess of bodies basking in the moment.

At a time when their fans — when their city — may have most needed it, the Washington Nationals provided a scene of unbridled joy Tuesday afternoon. It followed a scene that was highly improbable, at a time when their playoff hopes may have most needed it.

One day after shots rang out inside the Navy Yard, tragedy unfolding just blocks from Nationals Park, they returned to the business of baseball on Tuesday with a heart-pounding 6-5 victory over the Atlanta Braves in the first game of a doubleheader.

All it took was three runs in the ninth inning off Craig Kimbrel, aided by an error from the sure-handed Andrelton Simmons, shortly after Washington’s own bullpen had faltered,.

“The numbers were probably pretty well stacked against us, to be honest,” said Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond. “But they’ve been for a while now. We’re just going out and playing. A win is a win. We’ll take it.”

A long day of baseball began early, and with sincere solemnity.

They stood in a line in front of their dugout, heads bowed for a minute-long moment of silence and the familiar strains of the National Anthem. Held over their hearts were navy blue ballcaps with gold accents. Some had a block ‘N’ on them, others the word ‘NAVY‘ lettered across the front.

The caps were hand-delivered to the Nationals’ clubhouse Tuesday morning by Admiral James A. Winnefeld, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who thanked them for what they’d done in the wake of the unthinkable. Monday’s game was postponed, forcing Tuesday’s doubleheader, and Winnefeld urged them to try to refocus on baseball — for themselves, and all it may mean to the community.

“Beat up those Braves, all right?” the admiral asked manager Davey Johnson.

They tried.

“We’re still feeling it,” said right-hander Dan Haren, who tossed six innings and allowed just one run. “When I woke up, driving to the field, crossing over the bridge, I looked over. It made me think about it. Putting on the blue jersey before the game, with the Navy hats, I think we were all thinking about it all game, really.

“I wanted to do well. I really wanted to do well. I know that there wasn’t too many people at the game. … But I really, really wanted it bad, just to fire up people that are watching. Just to make a few people feel good.”

Haren’s performance was strong, but it was undone by an offense that mustered one hit in innings 2 through 8 and the normally infallible Tyler Clippard serving up a two-run homer that gave the Braves a 4-3 lead in the eighth. Defensive mistakes expanded that defiict to 5-3 in the ninth, as Kimbrel warmed.

And then the improbable happened. Kimbrel walked Adam LaRoche to open the ninth, and Wilson Ramos reached on an infield hit. Anthony Rendon showed bunt. He tried. But as Kimbrel worked with home plate umpire Todd Tichenor’s inconsistent strike zone, Rendon offered at only one pitch in a seven-pitch walk to load the bases.

“I’m going to be honest with you, when they got that extra run in the ninth, I was like ‘It’s not going to be too good for us,’” said Span. “He’s the best closer in the game. And once he walked the leadoff hitter I was like ‘You know what? We might have a chance.’ He didn’t look himself.”

Chad Tracy pinch-hit, and smacked a 1-2 slider toward first baseman Freddie Freeman as LaRoche scored and the Nationals made it a one-run game. Span took one pitch and connected with a 98-mph fastball that sprinted up the middle. Simmons, who had made 11 errors all season, let the ball go through his legs.

“I said, ‘That’s the game right there,’” Span said. “Turned around and everybody was jumping me.”

But as they danced on the infield dirt Tuesday afternoon, their incredible win had done more than just given a sentimental boost to anyone who needed a distraction from the harshness of real life.

The Nationals moved to 4½ games back of the Cincinnati Reds in the race for the final wild card spot, and they ensured the Braves would not pop champagne at the end of this day to celebrate a division crown.

“I said coming in here, we have to show these guys that we can beat them,” Johnson said. “We don’t want them thinking they can just roll over us. … We just have to show them: This is our home. This is our yard. You can’t do that to us. I feel we’ve got an as good or better ballclub.”

They retreated to their clubhouse, hoping to ride the emotion that bubbled over at the end of their matinee in a nightcap that held just as much weight with regard to their playoff chances.

But it was already a good day.

“The last time I pitched, I wore the [blue] jersey, in New York [on] September 11,” Haren said. “To wear it and have that ‘W’ on our chest with the red, white and blue in it and the Navy hats, I thought it was really cool. … There’s more to life than baseball. I think everyone in here knows that.”

NOTES: Ramos’ streak of starting 24 consecutive games behind the plate came to an end on Tuesday when he did not start the second game of the doubleheader. … Span extended his hitting streak to 27 games in the first game Tuesday and would look to make it 28 in the nightcap.

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