- The Washington Times - Monday, October 6, 2014

SAN FRANCISCO — In the first two hours of their 4-1 win over the San Francisco Giants on Monday afternoon, the Washington Nationals had no answer for left-hander Madison Bumgarner, the vaunted ace of San Francisco’s rotation.

Staring the end of their season squarely in the face, the Nationals had yet to even reach third base in Game 3 of the National League Division Series, let alone score a run. Bumgarner was rolling. Their lineup was sputtering. It didn’t look good.

Then Wilson Ramos strode to the plate in the seventh inning with Bryce Harper on first base, Ian Desmond on second and nobody out. He looked to third base coach Bobby Henley, who relayed the sign from dugout. The Nationals wanted Ramos to bunt.

It was a smart call, an effort to manufacture a run against a dominant starter. “It’s a dire situation,” manager Matt Williams said afterwards. There was only one problem: Ramos hadn’t bunted successfully in a game in more than three years. He takes only two practice bunts every day during batting practice. That’s it. That was his preparation.

“I was a little bit nervous in that moment,” he admitted.

And that’s what makes what happened next even more remarkable. With two strikes, Ramos laid down a bunt, drawing Bumgarner off the mound. The left-hander picked up the ball, turned and, in a moment of aggression bordering on arrogance, zipped the ball toward third base.

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Third baseman Pablo Sandoval did the splits as Desmond slid into his right foot. The ball sailed wide, into the Giants’ bullpen along the left-field line. Desmond scored. Harper scored. And just like that, Washington’s 21-inning offensive drought ended.

Just like that, the Nationals knew they were back in this series.

“The momentum shifted,” Tyler Clippard said. “And we felt it.”

There were several other moments and performances Monday afternoon that kept Washington’s season alive for one more day.

Doug Fister pitched seven scoreless innings, limiting the Giants to four hits in the most important start of his Nationals tenure. Harper blasted a solo home run to right field to lead off the ninth, sending the ball over the brick wall in right field and nearly out of the park altogether. And Drew Storen overcame a shaky start in the ninth to finish the game, the first step toward exorcising his playoff demons.

But at its core, this game came down to the bunt.

We got the break we’ve kind of been looking for, for days now,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “You hate to [rely on that], but when it happens, it’s a little bit of a relief. Kind of like things are turning a little bit. We got a break there.”

It started with a decision by Williams, who has drawn widespread criticism for his decision to remove Jordan Zimmermann from Game 2 after 8 2/3 scoreless innings. The rookie manager has typically trusted his players to swing away, but in this particular situation, he knew the immense value of one run.

“We’ve got to get a guy to third base with less than two out,” Williams said. “We’ve got to try to score a run. So it’s important for us to execute there.”

Ramos knew he might be asked to bunt. So when he walked from the on-deck circle and saw the sign from Henley, he wasn’t surprised. Henley met him along the third-base line anyways to confirm the call.

“I wanted to make sure that he understood he was bunting,” Henley said, “because he is not asked to bunt very often.”

Ramos returned to the box and watched one strike sail over the plate. Then a ball. Then a second strike. He knew he should have acted on one of those pitches. He stepped away from the plate.

“Willy, you need to do it,” he thought to himself. “You need to play for the team. You need to move those runners.”

So with two strikes, Ramos tried to put the ball on the grass. It didn’t matter where. It didn’t matter how. He just wanted to get it down.

When he did, Ramos said he heard Giants catcher Buster Posey tell Bumgarner to throw the ball to third. “Oh Lord,” Ramos thought, believing that he had failed to move the lead runner.

Ramos watched the play unfold as he ran to first, then continued on to second. He watched the ball skip past Sandoval, and watched the Nationals take a 2-0 lead. The pitch he bunted? A slider, which from a left-handed pitcher is no easy feat.

That definitely was the play of the game right there,” Denard Span said. “I think he surprised everybody, especially with the two-strike bunt. … I don’t think I’ve ever seen him put a bunt down in BP. Just a key play there, big-time play by him.”

The crowd went quiet, but the scoring wasn’t over. Asdrubal Cabrera singled in the next at-bat, Henley waved Ramos around third and the Nationals immediately bolstered their lead to 3-0. The Giants were left to second guess.

“He tried to do a little too much on that bunt,” manager Bruce Bochy said of Bumgarner. “You take the out.”

Bumgarner worked his way out of the inning but didn’t return after that. He pitched six masterful innings, and one forgettable one. He was upstaged by Fister, the reliable right-hander who has paced the Nationals’ rotation all season.

“He goes out there every single time he pitches, he’s got the enthusiasm we need on and off the field,” Harper said. “Being able to come in and do what he did today, keep them off balance, being able to pitch and do the things he did today was unbelievable, especially in the hostile environment.”

Fister left the game in the eighth. Then it was Harper’s turn in the spotlight in the ninth.

When he stepped to the plate to begin the inning, the crowd directly behind the plate brought out a popular chant. “What’s the matter with Harp-er? He’s-a-bum!” they jeered. “What’s the matter with Harp-er? He’s-a…”

Then the cheer tailed off as Harper’s home run flew to the concourse right field.

The homer was not directly related to Ramos’ bunt, or Bumgarner’s error. But it was indicative of a new mentality the Nationals carried off the field, into the clubhouse and back to their San Francisco hotel. It was indicative of the feeling they’ll still have when they return Tuesday, with their season again on the line.

“Right now, everybody’s happy,” Ramos said. “We need that confidence. We need that confidence for tomorrow.”

They might also need Ramos to lay down another bunt.

“If I had to do it,” he said with a grin, “I would do it.”

• Tom Schad can be reached at tschad@washingtontimes.com.

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