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Nats' rain-delayed win is worth the wait

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Nats' rain-delayed win is worth the wait

Jayson Werth was ready to step to the plate for the bottom of the ninth inning, Heath Bell on the mound, the Nationals trailing by a run. And then a wall of black clouds appeared from behind the third base stands, a fierce wind kicked up and rain began falling in buckets as a storm system that produced a tornado only a few miles away in Northern Virginia overtook Nationals Park.

Thus the Nationals retreated to their clubhouse for what proved to be a 2-hour, 33-minute delay, followed by sudden word from the umpires' room the game was about to resume.

"We had like 11 minutes," Werth said. "An 11-minute warning. Usually they give you 20 or 30. Today was 11. And it turned out to be the right number."

Indeed, because 11 minutes were all the Nationals needed to restart their engines, retake the field and ultimately retake a ballgame that will long be remembered as one of the wildest (and most satisfying) in club history.

Werth's towering home run off Bell to open the bottom of the ninth tied the game and sent it to extra innings. That set the stage for September call-up Corey Brown to loft the game-winning single to right in the bottom of the 10th, the final blow in a 7-6 victory that was witnessed by only a couple hundred faithful fans but resonated far beyond the confines of South Capitol Street.

With perhaps their most improbable win of an improbable season, the Nationals moved one step closer to their first NL East title, maintaining their 6 12-game lead over the also-victorious Braves while lowering their magic number to 17.

That they did so under such unusual circumstances, at the end of a long day at the ballpark that began with news of Stephen Strasburg's immediate shutdown by management, only sweetened the mood.

"You guys had to rewrite a few stories, huh?" manager Davey Johnson said with a smile as he sat down for his postgame news conference. "What a game."

The dramatic rally actually began in the bottom of the eighth, when Ryan Zimmerman clubbed a two-run homer off Miami reliever A.J. Ramos to bring the Nationals to within one run. They were champing at the bit to complete the rally in the bottom of the ninth, only to have everything put on hold when the storm arrived.

So as fans rushed to take cover while getting doused, players retreated to the clubhouse to catch some college football on TV and grab a snack. They didn't know when -- or if -- the game would resume, and indeed for a moment it appeared the umpires might call the game and award an eight-inning victory to the Marlins.

"I was really worried, and so was general manager Mike Rizzo," Johnson said. "He was worried that they would bang it. We kept hoping they'd hold on, because I think it was real close. It just looked like there wasn't going to be much window. And Riz said, 'Let's wait 15 minutes,' or something, and we did."

Thus the game was restarted in rapid-fire fashion, with Bell retaking the mound more than 2 12 hours after he originally did, and Werth stepping to the plate to lead off the bottom of the ninth. He worked the count full, fouling off two 3-2 pitches before finally connecting on a fastball and sending it soaring into the Red Porch area beyond the left-center field fence.

"Once I got to 2-2, I figured he probably wasn't going to be messing around with any breaking stuff," Werth said. "He's got a good fastball and likes to work up in the zone, and I got a pitch that was probably top of the zone but was up just enough."

The game proceeded into extra innings, with Drew Storen striking out the side to complete a dominant performance by the back end of the Nationals bullpen. Storen, Tyler Clippard and rookie Christian Garcia combined to retire nine of the 10 batters they faced, eight via strikeout.

"Nice," said Storen when informed of the strikeout total. "Yeah, that's usually a pretty good sign right there."

The game-winning rally developed over the course of five batters, ignited by Adam LaRoche's single off reliever Chad Gaudin, then boosted by Ian Desmond's base hit to right, with the slow-footed LaRoche chugging all the way around to slide safely headfirst into third base.

"I mean, he's not your fastest runner," Johnson said. "But he had made up his mind: He was going to third, and he did a heck of a job. Haven't seen him slide headfirst -- ever -- so you know emotions were running high."

With runners now on the corners and nobody out, the Marlins intentionally walked Danny Espinosa, loading the bases and forcing manager Ozzie Guillen to shift left fielder Justin Ruggiano to a spot just in front of second base as part of a five-man infield.

And when Kurt Suzuki immediately pounded a groundball right to Ruggiano, who fired to the plate for the wholly unconventional, 7-2 force out, the Nationals suddenly had to wonder whether their luck had run out.

"I have never seen it work," Johnson said of the five-man infield. "That was the first time I'd ever seen it work."

No worries, because moments later Brown stepped to the plate and delivered the game-winner. After sitting around for six hours playing no role whatsoever in the ballgame, the 26-year-old rookie lofted a soft liner to right field, the ball glancing off Giancarlo Stanton's glove and falling to the ground as Desmond crossed the plate with the winning run.

"In my situation, you got to always be ready to pinch-hit at any time," Brown said. "I had some confidence in myself. I was just trying to relax a little bit in that situation."

Brown may have been relaxed in the moment, but as soon as he reached first base and was mobbed by teammates, there was nothing but excitement on display from the best team in baseball after one of its signature wins of the season.

So what if it happened three hours after everyone originally hoped it would. It was still well worth the wait.

"Oh, yeah," Johnson said. "Got to use everybody. It was fun."

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Nats call up catcher Spencer Kieboom after Wilson Ramos' injury

Nats call up catcher Spencer Kieboom after Wilson Ramos' injury

The day after Wilson Ramos suffered a right knee injury in their 14-4 loss to the Diamondbacks on Monday night, the Nationals called up catcher Spencer Kieboom from the Double-A Harrisburg Senators.

Ramos, 29, was scheduled for an MRI on Tuesday morning.

This would certainly point towards the All-Star backstop at least missing some time.

The Nationals now have four catchers on their roster with Jose Lobaton and Pedro Severino also in store.

Ramos hurt himself landing on his right leg after jumping for a ball thrown home in the top of the sixth inning. Ramos previously tore his ACL and MCL in the same knee back in 2012.

Kieboom, 25, was a fifth-round pick out of Clemson in 2012.

He holds a .264 average in 297 career minor league games. He hit .230 through 94 games at Harrisburg this season.

RELATED: NATS DESPERATE TO STAY HEALTHY AS PLAYOFFS APPROACH

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State of the Nats: Delicate balance to stay healthy in final week

State of the Nats: Delicate balance to stay healthy in final week

Team Record: 91-65

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The final week - Manager Dusty Baker and his Nationals have a delicate balance to maintain over the next week-plus as they get set to play the Dodgers in the NL Division Series on Oct. 7. They need to remain sharp while still giving some of their regulars rest before the grind that is October. It sounds simple, but it has been proven over and over to be much more complex than it sounds.

The most important objective through all of it, of course, is avoiding injuries and both Sunday and Monday's games illustrated how difficult that can be. Any time players are on the field, they are at risk of hurting themselves. On Sunday in Pittsburgh, Bryce Harper jammed his thumb sliding into third base on a triple against the Pirates. X-rays were negative, but it could have easily been serious. The Nats dodged a bullet.

One night later, catcher Wilson Ramos hurt his knee on a throw home. Ryan Zimmerman threw high over Ramos' head, requiring him to jump and catch it. He landed on his right leg and his knee buckled slightly. It wasn't even a contact play, yet now the catcher's immediate future hangs in the balance.

Both of these injuries come on the heels of Daniel Murphy injuring his left buttock and Stephen Strasburg suffering a strained right flexor mass. That's four of their five 2016 All-Stars, all injured to different degrees in a span of just three weeks.

No one wants to put their players in harm's way unnecessarily, but the alternative can also be bleak. It's an inexact science trying to keep players sharp down the stretch of the regular season ahead of the playoffs, especially with a four-day layoff awaiting them while the MLB wild card games are decided. That's basically an All-Star break, an unusually long respite right before the intensity of games goes up several notches.

The Nationals know this all too well, as in 2014 they had the four-day layoff and came out of it flat on offense. They won 17 of 22 down the stretch of the regular season, but then had four days off. They did their best with a simulated game at Nationals Park. Aaron Barrett famously sang the national anthem. It sounded like a fun time, but it couldn't prevent the Nats from hitting just .164 in their series against the Giants. Their bullpen stood out in that series loss, and so did some managerial decisions, but bottom line is that they scored nine runs in four games.

Their pitching was mostly good. They also held the Giants to just nine runs in the series. The Nats just couldn't score when they needed to.

Baker has plenty of experience heading into the playoffs both as a player and as a manager. He told a story on Monday about the 1977 season when he was an outfielder for the Dodgers that has stuck with him ever since:

"I know that when I was a player back in ’77 Steve Garvey and I were the only ones that played all the way to the end because I was trying to hit 30 home runs and he was trying to get 200 hits. Consequently, Reggie Smith and Ron Seay when we started the playoffs they weren’t sharp because they took three or four days off because they already had their 30 home runs. So Garv and I were the only two that were really hot and we got to the World Series and we weren’t that hot but the other guys that had gotten the rest were hot. It’s a thin line between playing a whole bunch and not playing enough."

It may not affect how they play in the postseason whatsoever, but it would be a good idea for the Nats to hold an open workout this time. In 2014, they closed their workout to both fans and the media. They basically remained silent for four days heading into the postseason.

The Kansas City Royals, conversely, held a workout open to fans in October of 2014. They called it a playoff rally and around five thousand people showed up to Kauffman Stadium.

Now, that's just an idea that could bring some fun to the whole experience. It offers no solution to the conundrum of keeping players rested, yet sharp for the playoffs. Though, the Royals reaching the World Series that year at least proves it can't hurt.

Truthfully, there is probably no right answer in how to handle the Nationals over the next 10 days. Would you rather run the risk of injury, or risk losing rhythm and momentum entering the playoffs? It's not an easy call to make.

NL East Standings

Offensive game of the week: Ryan Zimmerman 9/23 vs. Pirates - 2-for-5, 2 2B, 2 R, RBI

Pitching line of the week: Reynaldo Lopez 9/24 vs. Pirates - 5.1 IP, 0 R, 3 H, 6 SO, 2 BB, 85 pitches (57 strikes)

Quote of the Week 

"That's what I came here for. I'm telling you -- let these young men have a great time tonight, back to work tomorrow. First step in a four-step process. This step is the hardest to get. I'm just so happy for these guys. I love them. I love this team."

- Dusty Baker on the Nats clinching the 2016 NL East

Tweet (or Instagram) of the Week

Road Ahead

Mon. - 14-4 loss to Arizona
Tue. - 7:05 p.m. vs. Arizona Diamondbacks (Scherzer vs. Godley)
Wed. - 7:05 p.m. vs. Arizona Diamondbacks (Gonzalez vs. Miller)
Thu. - 1:05 p.m. vs. Arizona Diamondbacks (Ross vs. Ray)
Fri. - 7:05 p.m. vs. Miami Marlins (Cole vs. Chen)
Sat. - 4:05 p.m. vs. Miami Marlins (Roark vs. Phelps)
Sun. - 3:05 p.m. vs. Miami Marlins (Scherzer vs. Urena)

[RELATED: Ramos set for MRI as Nats hope injury isn't serious]

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