Nationals grind their way to walk-off victory

Nationals grind their way to walk-off victory
April 20, 2014, 7:30 pm
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As Denard Span stepped to the plate late Sunday afternoon, bases full of teammates and the game tied in the bottom of the ninth, he paused for a moment to examine the Cardinals' unusual-looking infield alignment.

"I counted," he said. "I'm saying: 'One, two, three, four, five. ... A groundball is probably not going to do it. Try to get the ball in the air somehow.'"

Span is a groundball hitter, always has been, but he knew anything on the grass or dirt could play right into St. Louis' hands, sparking the double play manager Mike Matheny was seeking to send this game into extra innings.

So he battled, fouling off four straight pitches, taking another borderline pitch with two strikes, waiting all along for something he could elevate. And when that pitch from Seth Maness finally came, when Span lofted a lazy flyball to left field that scored Danny Espinosa without a throw, everyone inside Nationals Park could finally celebrate after a long and mostly frustrating afternoon ended in a 3-2 victory.

"Talk about those opportunities and giving ourselves that multiple times in a game ... you like your chances, certainly," manager Matt Williams said. "Especially against a good team like that, we want to create those. I don't know how many guys we had on base today, but it felt like a lot."

The number, in case anyone else lost track, was 20. The Nationals put 20 men on base in 8 1/3 innings against a tough Cardinals pitching staff. But until the bottom-of-the-ninth rally, they had scored only two of them, stranding 15.

All along, though, the Nationals felt like they were putting good at-bats together, had a good approach against some really difficult pitchers, especially the left-handers Matheny summoned late to face the likes of Span and Bryce Harper.

That approach finally paid off in the bottom of the seventh, when four consecutive singles from Adam LaRoche, Anthony Rendon, Ian Desmond and Espinosa off flamethrower Carlos Martinez brought home two runs to tie a ballgame they had trailed most of the day.

"We've got the ability to come back," right fielder Jayson Werth said. "We've showed it. We've put some good at-bats on some tough pitchers. They've got some guys in their 'pen that throw hard. I'm happy with today. I'm happy with the series. To get a split there, after the way we played a couple games, it was good."

Indeed, Thursday night's slopfest of an 8-0 loss — which prompted Williams to hold his first-ever postgame team meeting — was an afterthought by the end of a four-game series that saw the Nationals beat the defending NL champs twice.

"St. Louis is, if not the best, one of the best teams in the league," said Bryce Harper, who rebounded from Saturday's benching with a hit, a walk and a stolen base. "It's fun to be able to play against guys like that and just battle and try to win ballgames. We were lucky enough to split."

It took one final rally in the ninth to ensure that series split. It was ignited by Espinosa's third hit of the afternoon, then catcher Jose Lobaton's third single of the game. Pinch-hitter Nate McLouth, sporting an .074 batting average, battled his way through a tough at-bat to draw a walk and load the bases, leaving the game on Span's shoulders.

First, though, Matheny decided to rearrange his defense. Allen Craig moved in from left field to play third base, with Matt Carpenter shifting to an extra infield spot right behind the pitcher. The two remaining outfielders then swapped spots, with stronger-armed Peter Bourjos taking right-center field and Jon Jay taking left-center.

Span's flyball wasn't particularly deep, but it was deep enough to force Jay to backtrack just a bit, leaving the left-handed outfielder in a poor position to even attempt a throw to the plate. Espinosa scored easily, and the rest of the Nationals dugout mobbed Span near first base following their first walk-off win of the year.

Barely 24 hours after being activated off MLB's concussion DL, Span admittedly worried for a second about too much roughhousing from his teammates. Then again, you don't get these opportunities every day, so he wasn't about to turn into a party-pooper.

"I was screaming so loud. I was so into the moment," he said. "At the same time, I'm thinking: 'Don't hit me upside the head too hard! I just came off the DL!' In that moment, it's the adrenaline and just the excitement. I was in the moment, having fun."