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Nats' last man delivers

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Nats' last man delivers

As the Nationals' designated backup catcher for the night, Wilson Ramos knew he could lounge around in the dugout, pop sunflower seeds into his mouth and goof around with teammates. But as this game progressed, as the Nationals and Phillies kept trading blows with neither side able to deliver the knockout punch, Ramos began to realize his services might actually be needed at some point.

Sure enough, as the bottom of the 11th arrived, manager Davey Johnson got Ramos' attention at the other end of the dugout and held up five fingers. Translation: If reach the No. 5 spot in our lineup in this inning, you're hitting for the pitcher.

And just like that, Ramos transformed from his lazy-night-off mindset to emergency pinch-hitter mode.

"In that moment, I just take my batting gloves and say: 'OK, I'm the man,'" he said. "Go out and hit the ball hard."

Which is exactly what he did. With the bases loaded and two outs in a 3-hour, 42-minute marathon, Ramos fell behind in the count 0-2, then took a ball, then fouled two more pitches off before drilling a slider from Phillies reliever Michael Schwimer over shortstop Jimmy Rollins' head. Steve Lombardozzi came racing home and then took off to join the celebration near first base as Ramos was mobbed by teammates upon delivering the base hit that gave the Nationals' a 4-3 victory over their hated division rivals.

"The at-bat didn't start out too good," Johnson said. "But it ended good."

A crowd of 34,377, lured by a team-sponsored promotion to take back their park from the Phillies fans who in the past have invaded South Capitol Street, let out a roar previously heard only a handful of times in this facility. Having waited through nearly four hours of baseball, watching as the home team threatened to push across the go-ahead run but was unable to do it despite 23 men on base, those fans were rewarded with one of the more-satisfying of the Nationals' NL East-leading 17 victories.

"It speaks about the character of this team," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "We want to win. It was nice, obviously, to have the crowd behind us tonight. I'd give it 70-30 probably. But better than 20-80 the other way."

Truth be told, the Nationals couldn't have drawn up a much better script for the first game of a weekend series they've been hyping for months. With young stars Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper both in the lineup for a surprising club that has spent the last 24 days in first place, there was plenty of anticipation in the stands when the game began.

That anticipation only built up over the course of 11 innings, experiencing some early downs when Strasburg served up two home runs but bouncing back up when role players Chad Tracy and Jesus Flores produced the three RBI necessary to keep this game alive.

Not that the Nationals didn't have plenty of opportunities to put the Phillies away earlier. They stranded 14 men on base, including two in the sixth and three in the eighth.

All the squandered chances left players frustrated and perhaps at times even defeated. Their manager, though, looked at the situation in a different light.

"Actually, at this point I really like it, because we're threatening," Johnson said. "A lot of times this year we've been awful quiet with the bats. I knew it's coming, and it was nice to see quality at-bats from some guys that haven't been doing it."

Reinvigorated by five scoreless innings from five different relievers -- Tom Gorzelanny, Craig Stammen, Henry Rodriguez, Tyler Clippard and Ryan Perry -- the Nationals came up to bat in the 11th, determined to push that final, winning run across.

They managed to do it all with two outs, the rally jump-started by Lombardozzi's single to right. That brought Harper to the plate with a chance to win the game with one swing, and the crowd rose in anticipation of a magical moment. Instead, everyone had to settle for another quality at-bat out of the 19-year-old, who fell behind 0-2 and then battled his way to his third walk of the night.

Jayson Werth also drew a free pass from Schwimer, loading the bases for Ramos and setting the stage for the catcher.

"I was the last guy on the bench," Ramos said. "And, you know, I just was thinking: 'Try to get the runners in.'"

He did, setting off a mad celebration that players were still trying to process nearly an hour later.

"I was freaking out," Lombardozzi said. "I threw my helmet and got to Ramos as fast as possible. I was saying to myself: 'Did I hit home plate? I hope I did.'"

He sure did. And because of it, the Nationals gave themselves -- and their fans -- a heart-stopping victory, and perhaps even more reason to believe this is merely the first step toward even bigger things.

"Right now, it's just a game," Desmond said. "It's just one game. We've got to go out and play 'em hard tomorrow, and we've got to play the rest of the games for the rest of the season hard. And hopefully there's meaningful baseball between both of us teams towards the end of the year."

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Thoughts on the death of Marlins superstar Jose Fernandez

Thoughts on the death of Marlins superstar Jose Fernandez

The baseball world lost one of its best on Sunday morning with the tragic death of Marlins superstar Jose Fernandez, an ace pitcher who at just 24 years old had already established himself as arguably the most feared right-hander in baseball.

He was a dominant force who was unquestionably one of the best players on the planet and a guy so many of us were genuinely excited to watch for years to come.

The details of his life off the field made his ending that much more tragic, how he had escaped from Cuba and been separated from his grandmother for so long.

How just a week ago he revealed on Intagram that he and his girlfriend were expecting a child.

RELATED: ORIOLES MANAGER REACTS TO TRAGIC PASSING OF FERNANDEZ

On the field, he had the talent to be a Hall of Famer, one of the best pitchers of all time. And by all accounts, he was a splendid person as well. On the mound his vibrant personality was easy to see through his emotional pitching style. It seemed like he was never stoic. There was always either a smile or a scowl. He lived in the moment and every pitch was an event.

It's clear how much opposing players admired him, not only with the outpour of condolences since his death, but with how they talked about him while he was still alive. Bryce Harper's famous quotes made to ESPN this spring training about how there should be more emotion and personality in the game honed in on Fernandez. He was the central example of his argument.

Here's what Harper told ESPN in March: "Jose Fernandez is a great example. Jose Fernandez will strike you out and stare you down into the dugout and pump his fist. And if you hit a homer and pimp it? He doesn't care. Because you got him. That's part of the game."

That's some serious respect from a guy who who had more plate appearances against Fernandez than any other player. Because he played in the same division as Fernandez, Harper faced him 26 times. He only got four hits - not one of them for extra bases - and posted a lowly .595 OPS. Yet, he admired Fernandez and enjoyed facing him.

A lot of Nationals players saw Fernandez frequently and none of them had success. Yes, none of them.

Jayson Werth went 1-for-20 with seven strikeouts. Wilson Ramos went 3-for-18 with six strikeouts. Danny Espinosa went 2-for-16. Anthony Rendon went 3-for-22 with nine strikeouts. Ryan Zimmerman, who went 4-for-15, was a relative standout in the bunch and he couldn't solve him, either.

Ian Desmond, who left the Nats to sign with the Rangers this offseason, went 0-for-17 with 12 strikeouts against Fernandez when he was in Washington. And Desmond is a three-time Silver Slugger and two-time All-Star.

Fernandez made 10 starts against the Nats in his career and went 7-0 with a 0.99 ERA. He gave up 34 hits in 63 2/3 innings and struck out 84 batters. 

Fernandez struck out 12.9 batters per nine innings this season, the best rate in the majors. In his last outing, which was against the Nationals, he tossed eight shutout innings with 12 strikeouts, no walks and just three hits allowed. He took a first-place team and made them look like they didn't even belong on the same field.

It didn't matter who you were. You were not going to hit his high-90s fastball that moved in all sorts of directions as it crossed the plate. You weren't going to hit his curveball, that dropped in the zone with zip and precision.

He was just that good. And now he's gone.

RELATED: NATIONALS ROAD TO 2016 NL EAST WAS RELATIVELY SMOOTH

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Bryce Harper's injury untimely, but Nationals' offense is heating up

Bryce Harper's injury untimely, but Nationals' offense is heating up

Notes and observations from the Nats' 10-7 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday afternoon…

Harper's untimely injury: The Nationals have another injury to worry about as they close the regular season and prepare for the playoffs, as Bryce Harper hurt his left thumb on an awkward slide into third base in Sunday's win. Now the reigning MVP heads for X-rays on Monday, hoping he didn't seriously damage the same thumb he tore a ligament in back in 2014.

The Nationals did not seem too worried based on their postgame comments to reporters, but it certainly bears watching with the playoffs set to begin in just about a week-and-a-half. Obviously, they would like to have Harper available for their postseason run, and he just happened to be heating up before he got hurt. Harper injured himself on a triple. He drove in a run earlier in the game on a groundout, had two RBI on Saturday and three hits on Friday. Harper has six hits in his last four games after having just one in his previous nine.

If Harper has to play through thumb pain moving forward, keep in mind how his 2014 problem significantly affected his power. Harper posted a career-low slugging percentage of .423. He's already struggled mightily at times this season and doesn't need anything else making it harder for him to be himself at the plate. It's a tough time for him to get hurt, but they do have over a week to get him right before the NLDS begins.

Nats offense kicking into gear: Harper's recent contributions have been part of an overall offensive surge for the Nats. With 10 runs on Sunday, the Nats have scored 29 total in their last four games. That's after posting just eight in their previous four games before that. Entering their weekend series against the Pirates, the Nats had the fewest runs of any NL team in the month of September. Offense was starting to look like a real issue for the Nationals, right as they neared the finish line of the regular season, but recently that has not been the case.

Cole, Latos, Glover continue to struggle: While the Nationals close out the final week of their regular season schedule, they will be closely evaluating their bench and bullpen in particular as they determine their final group for the playoff roster. Some tough decisions will be made on both accounts, but several Nats relievers may be pitching themselves out of contention for final spots.

A.J. Cole had another so-so outing on Sunday with three earned runs allowed on three walks and a hit in 2 2/3 innings of work. He only lasted 2 2/3 because he was ejected for throwing behind Jung Ho Kang in the third inning. Cole has now allowed 12 earned runs in his last 14 2/3 innings. That's a very discouraging trend for a guy who just a few starts ago looked like a potential playoff bullpen option.

Cole's downturn occurred following an impressive start against the Mets, an eye-opening performance against the Nats' division rival. The same thing happened to Mat Latos, who like Cole was good against the Mets but has since fallen off. Latos was charged with two earned runs on three hits and a walk in Sunday's win. He gave up two runs in his previous appearance against the Marlins on Sept. 19. That's two rough outings in a row with little time left to make an impression.

Rookie Koda Glover gave up the Pirates' final run on a homer by Kang in the bottom of the seventh. It was a two-run bomb, but the other run was charged to Sean Burnett, who was removed after walking Josh Bell with one out. Glover also gave up a run on Friday against the Pirates and has now allowed seven runs in six innings across his last seven outings. It has been a troubling stretch for a guy who had a nice start to this season and until recently looked like a potential playoff option.

Revere's best game in a while: The Nationals had 14 hits on Sunday and three of them came from center fielder Ben Revere. It was his fifth game this season with at least three hits and his first since July 1. Since Trea Turner took over for him in center, playing time has been hard to come by for Revere, but lately he's been making the most of it. Sunday was Revere's fourth start in September and in those games he has six hits and four runs. He also added two steals in Sunday's win, his first multi-steal game since June 27.

[RELATED: Nationals took relatively smooth road to winning 2016 NL East]

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