Nats respond to roster moves with first walk-off win
The day began with string of transactions, every one of them significant and in some cases surprising, not necessarily designed to come in unison but certainly having the collective effect of shaking up a roster that for two months had underachieved and left the Nationals with a losing record during the first week of June.
Except, for eight innings Tuesday night, nothing about these new-look Nationals looked, well, new. They got another great pitching performance from Jordan Zimmermann but still found themselves trailing thanks to some sloppy defense and a complete lack of offense.
Inside the dugout at Nationals Park, though, heads were not drooped. Players remained upbeat. And the key veteran just activated off the disabled list led the rallying cry.
"I've got all the confidence in the world in this team," Jayson Werth said. "It's just something you go through with a young team and guys finding their way in the league. We've got so much talent, sometimes it's easy to get in your own way. Not surprising. But at the same time, it's time to get it going."
So they did. At long last, the Nationals mounted a late rally, storming back to score the tying and winning runs in the bottom of the ninth, beat the Mets 3-2 and enjoy something not enjoyed in these parts since Werth's at-bat for the ages last October: a walk-off celebration.
"A huge win," Zimmermann said. "Everyone was down a little bit from the last road trip. If we would have dropped this one, it would've been a heartbreaker. We got it when we needed one."
A Nationals lineup that entered play with the majors' worst on-base percentage (.287) tried its hardest for eight innings to bring that number down to even greater depths, managing all of four hits and a walk off Jeremy Hefner and Brandon Lyon. Five times in those eight innings, they went down in order. Seven times, they found themselves with two outs and nobody on base.
But then Ryan Zimmerman jump-started a much-needed rally off Mets closer Bobby Parnell, leading off the bottom of the ninth with a shot to right-center. The ball struck the wall on the fly, and Zimmerman immediately knew he'd be trying to stretch the hit into a double. But he also knew the guy retrieving the ball — old pal Rick Ankiel — has the best outfield arm in the game.
"You gotta go for it right there," Zimmerman said. "A double is so much bigger than a single in that situation. It just puts so many other things into play than a single does. It was close, but it was worth it."
Zimmerman's headfirst slide just barely beat Ankiel's throw, and now set the stage for Adam LaRoche to drive in the tying run with a simple base hit. Which is exactly what LaRoche did, driving a hard shot through the right side of the infield. Zimmerman came racing around to score, and the crowd of 31,473 at Nationals Park suddenly roared with renewed vigor.
Now, momentum was on the Nationals' side, and they weren't about to give it away. Ian Desmond laced a double to left-center, advancing LaRoche to third and putting the Mets in a position where they felt they had to intentionally walk struggling Roger Bernadina to load the bases and create a force out anywhere on the diamond.
So, up stepped Steve Lombardozzi with a chance to play the hero. This actually would have been Danny Espinosa's regular spot to hit, but the .158-hitting second baseman was placed on the disabled list with a fractured right wrist earlier, one of the six transactions made by GM Mike Rizzo and probably the one that drew the most attention.
This also figures to be Anthony Rendon's spot to hit come Wednesday, the organization's top prospect expected to take over as the Nationals' regular second baseman for the immediate future. A hectic travel day, though, left Rendon as a spectator for this one, and opened the door for Lombardozzi to get his rare chance in a huge spot.
What the 6-footer from Howard County lacks in raw physical tools he makes up for in grit and game smarts. Lombardozzi understood the scenario. He didn't need to hit the ball hard. He just needed to hit it out of the infield, deep enough to drive in the winning run.
"You're not trying to do much in that situation, trying to get big," he said. "[Parnell] throws pretty firm; he was up in the zone. I was just trying to get something I can handle and get the runner home."
Seven of Parnell's nine pitches in the at-bat were actually up and out of the strike zone. And Lombardozzi swung at all but two of them. But he kept making contact, fouling off three consecutive 2-2 offerings before finally lofting one down the left-field line, just far enough to bring LaRoche home.
"He usually only swings at strikes, and I think he was swinging at anything thrown up there that wasn't over his head," manager Davey Johnson said. "But it was a great at-bat."
As LaRoche slid across the plate, the Nationals dugout emptied and players dogpiled in the center of the diamond. It was the first time they'd been able to enjoy that time-honored ritual in 58 games this season, and they relished every moment of it.
"Those are the situations you want to be in," Lombardozzi said. "I love being up with the guys in scoring position. That was my first walk-off personally, so that was pretty neat. Those are the situations you dream of."
"The crowd was into it, everybody was cheering," Desmond said. "It kind of took you back a little bit. We haven't had one of those this year. Hopefully many more."
Now, the all-important question: Can a come-from-behind win like that create some much-needed momentum for a ballclub that has yet to get on any kind of sustained roll all season? Or is it just a blip along the way, a one-night-only event that will be forgotten by the time these two teams take the field again Wednesday night?
"It absolutely can," Werth said. "Maybe this is something we were looking for. Maybe this will get us going. Time will tell. I've got a lot of faith in this club and these guys. I'm really looking forward to the rest of the season."