In a marathon ballgame that featured plenty of young players in Nationals uniforms experiencing pennant race baseball for the first time in their lives, who would have thought the winning run would wind up scoring because of a brain cramp by the Braves' three-time All-Star and seven-year veteran?
Maybe there truly is something special about the 2012 Nationals, who kept trying to find ways to lose Monday night's showdown with Atlanta yet managed to hang around long enough to watch Dan Uggla butcher Chad Tracy's sharp grounder in the bottom of the 13th, allowing Danny Espinosa to slide across the plate with the run that gave the home team a thrilling 5-4 victory in the most significant game in the club's brief history.
"We're very young," manager Davey Johnson said. "This is great. This is the learning curve. This is experience."
The opener of a three-game series that could see the Nationals all but bury the Braves in the division race -- or allow their lone remaining competitor to close the gap -- turned into an epic battle deep into the night.
By the time Espinosa slid across the plate at 12:28 a.m., much of what had transpired up to that point -- a 56-minute rain delay, a 4-run first inning for the Nationals, a ragged start for Jordan Zimmermann, countless missed opportunities for both teams to win -- felt like ancient history.
All that seemed to matter was the fact the Nationals found some way to emerge victorious, and in the process ascend to 30 games over .500 for the first time while also extending their lead over Atlanta to six games with 40 to play.
"This was almost like a playoff atmosphere," Tracy said. "These are the type of teams you're going to be playing. Why not prepare for them now?"
If anything, the less-experienced Nationals played much of the night like a team that hasn't been in this position before.
Zimmermann, the majors' ERA leader at the start of the night, labored through five innings, throwing 102 pitches and giving up four runs.
"I was terrible," the right-hander said.
Shortstop Ian Desmond dropped a pair of routine throws that could have proved costly but ultimately didn't factor into the outcome.
After pouncing on Tim Hudson for four runs in the bottom of the first, the Nationals' lineup was stone-cold silent over the next 11 innings, totaling six hits (and zero runs) until the final rally in the 13th.
And a bullpen that was completely maxed out put runners in scoring position in the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth and 11th innings yet managed somehow not to let any of them score.
"A lot of us have never played in an important baseball game since college or high school or maybe the minor leagues," said Craig Stammen, the last of seven Nationals relievers to appear in the game. "So I think it's important to get a little nervous or anxious, a little more adrenaline going on. I think it's definitely important to play games like that."
It helps, though, when you go on to win, which the Nationals did in bizarre fashion.
With one out and a man on first, catcher Kurt Suzuki tapped a high chopper over the mound and toward the left side of the infield. By the time Chipper Jones wound up fielding the ball, Suzuki was able to leg out the single. More importantly, Espinosa (who had been breaking off first base on the pitch) noticed nobody covering third base and thus raced all the way around without drawing a throw.
"I saw everyone kind of break for the ball," Espinosa said. "And once I saw everybody break, I hit second and I saw that there was no one at third. I just kept going."
With the winning run now 90 feet away and only one out on the board, the Braves were forced to bring their infield in with Tracy at the plate.
Though the veteran was the logical choice to pinch-hit for Stammen in that spot, his use would have forced the Nationals into turning to an unlikely pitcher for the 14th inning: Edwin Jackson, who two days ago threw 103 pitches during a seven-inning start. Jackson was scheduled to throw his between-starts bullpen session on Tuesday, so Johnson and pitching coach Steve McCatty asked if he'd be willing to pitch a couple of innings of relief in this game instead.
"I wasn't doing it for heroism," Jackson said. "But the bullpen was done. It was a game that we could possibly win. It's definitely a game where they don't want to throw position players. It's not a giveaway game. So I guess I was the next best option to legitimately have a chance to win."
Turned out Jackson's services were never needed, though when Tracy drilled Cristhian Martinez's pitch into the ground on the right side of the infield, it appeared for a moment like the Braves might escape the jam.
Uggla had to go down to a knee to get the ball hit just to his left, but he appeared to have time to throw to the plate and retire Espinosa, who was running on contact. But the veteran second baseman froze, thinking he might have a better shot at a double play that would end the inning.
Just one problem: Suzuki, the runner on first base, made a heads-up move to freeze and not give Uggla an easy opportunity to tag him and then toss to first base for the double play. Confounded, Uggla bobbled the ball and watched as it fell harmlessly to the ground without him ever making a throw or tagging anyone.
"I was going over pretty much every situation that might or could happen," he said. "I was like, if he hits a ball to my left, or hits a ball hard right at me, I can just tag Kurt and touch first and we can be out of it. He hit me a tough groundball that I had to drop to my knees to catch, and I didn't exactly know where Kurt was. Once I got up and I just tried to throw the ball home, I couldn't get the thing out of my glove."
As Espinosa slid in safely and Tracy crossed first base, the ball remained sitting in the infield grass. What remained of a small-yet-boisterous crowd of 21,298 let out one final roar, then headed for the exits knowing Washington's baseball team had just reached new heights in most stunning fashion.
Thirty games over .500. Six games up in the division. Ten games up in the wild-card race.
All thanks to a wild finish to the most important ballgame this town had hosted in a long time.
"That's the way to set the tone for the series," Tracy said. "We would have liked to have been out of here in nine innings. But, hey, we'll take the win."