September 21, 2014

Washington Nationals Game 80 Review: Team of destiny?

Adam LaRoche pumps fist after watching the winning run score on Washington Nationals 1924 Throwback Night, 7/05/2012. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

There are times during the season when you look at a situation in a game, say down 5-1 in the seventh inning to one of the game’s elite pitchers — who’s already thrown a no-hitter in the season – and you’ve only managed five hits all night long… you have to wonder about your chances of getting back into the game. And that’s against a team that’s only given up two leads of three or more runs all season long?

You’d probably be forgiven if you had given up and cleaned up your closet or something.

But then, you would have missed an electrifying three-run seventh inning, highlighted by back-to-back home runs by the middle infielders. You’d have missed a strikeout on a 101-MPH fastball. You’d have missed a 1-2-3 inning — with two Ks – by one of the best relief pitchers in the game. And you would have missed an improbable ninth inning comeback, ignited by three consecutive hits by rookies and ended with a botched tailor-made double play ball with the bases loaded that allowed the winning run to score, capping a comeback for the ages.

Sometimes, things play out to the averages. Then sometimes, the improbable becomes reality.

The Washington Nationals did all those things Thursday night, stealing a game from the San Francisco Giants that they had no business winning, completing the three-game sweep in the process.

The 6-5 win pushes the Nats to 16 games over .500 one-game shy of the mid-way point of the season, their high-water mark so far this season. Their record of 48-32 is best in the National League and 4 1/2 games ahead of second place New York Mets in the East.

The game-winning rally started in the bottom of the ninth with Tyler Moore’s pinch-hit double to the gap in left center. Steve Lombardozzzi then tried to give himself up, but reliever Santiago Casilla  (L, 2-4) couldn’t find the handle on the bunt, and all hands were safe. Bryce Harper then pulled a 2-2 pitch into right field, plating Moore with the tying run.

Casilla walked Ryan Zimmerman intentionally to load the bases to set up the force everywhere, and it looked like the Giants’ strategy would work when Michael Morse grounded to second to force Lombardozzi at home. Adam LaRoche followed, and hit a tailor-made double play grounder to second. Shortstop Brandon Crawford handled the toss from second baseman Ryan Theriot, but threw low and Brandon Belt couldn’t handle it at first.

Harper scored, bedlam erupted. The Nats walked away with a most improbable of victories.

The Giants got to Nats starter Ross Detwiler early and often and continued against reliever Craig Stammen, building a 5-1 lead at the seventh inning stretch. In reality, it could have been much worse than that, as the Giants put 13 base runners on against Detwiler in just five innings. But a double play and a couple of well-timed strikeouts allowed the young lefty to mitigate the damage.

Meanwhile, Matt Cain limited the Nats to just five hits over six innings, looking every bit as dominant as his numbers entering play would have indicated. The Nats scratched out one run in the second on a double play ground ball. But other than that, nothing.

Maybe it was the sweltering heat that finally got to Cain, but the Nats offense came alive in the seventh. Ian Desmond got things started with a line drive opposite field homer into the first row of the stands just to the left of the Nats bullpen. Danny Espinosa filed suit on a 2-1 change-up to deeper right center. Later, phenom Bryce Harper doubled with runners on the corners with two outs to cut the lead to 5-4, giving the Nats a fighting chance at a comeback.

If you’re a baseball romanticist, this is one of those games you point to illustrate a “Team of Destiny.” Who knows if the Nats can continue to get these types of results all summer long? But at this point, after a win like that, don’t you have to like their chances?

THE GOOD: Bryce Harper. He figured in both rallies and went 2-for-5 with two RBIs and the game-winning run.

THE BAD: Ryan Zimmerman went 0-for-4 and stranded three.

THE UGLY: The Giants’ clutch hitting. It wasn’t like they didn’t have their chances to blow this one open, but they went 3-for-15 with runners in scoring position. Pablo Sandoval stranded six by himself.

THE STATS: 12 H, 2 BB, 5 K. 3-for-9 with RISP, 9 LOB, 1 GIDP. No errors, 1 DP.

NEXT GAME: Friday, July 6 at 7:05 against the Colorado Rockies (31-51). All-Star Stephen Strasburg (9-3, 2.81) hosts lefty Drew Pomeranz (0-3, 3.72).

NATS NOTES: Drew Storen started his rehab assignment with Single-A Potomac Thursday night. The reliever pitched one inning and threw eight pitches in a 1-2-3 frame.

Nats run to congratulate Adam LaRoche at first after winning run scored on Washington Nationals 1924 Throwback Night, 7/05/2012. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

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