On a night when most of the Nationals’ starters got a rest, it was a veteran leader who made the difference with a milestone hit.
A night after clinching the first division championship in Washington baseball history, manager Davey Johnson gave most of his starters the night off. Gio Gonzalez was scratched from his pitching assignment so he can be ready for Game 1 of the National League Division Series, with Tom Gorzelanny replacing him. Rookie Sandy Leon got the start at catcher over Kurt Suzuki. Steve Lombardozzi spelled Danny Espinosa at second base. Mark DeRosa replaced Ian Desmond at short. Chad Tracy played third base in place of Ryan Zimmerman. Tyler Moore started for Michael Morse in left field, and Roger Bernadina took Jayson Werth‘s spot in right.
But it was LaRoche, starting at first base, who put the Nats ahead to stay with a sixth-inning homer, a high drive that barely cleared the bullpen fence in right field to break a 1-1 tie. LaRoche set a career high for homers in season and matched his career high for RBIs, set two years ago in Arizona.
The homer keyed a two-run inning. Losing pitcher Josh Lindblom (3-5) went on to walk Tracy and surrender a single to DeRosa before hitting Leon to lead the bases with one out. Suzuki pinch hit, but grounded into a 6-2 force out, before Lombardozzi delivered a base hit to center, scoring DeRosa.
That made a winner of Zach Duke (1-0), who allowed two hits and a walk, but had a strikeout and retired pinch hitter Carlos Ruiz to escape a bases-loaded jam in the sixth. Gorzelanny allowed four hits and one run — the first of two solo homers by Darrin Ruf, in 3 2-3 innings. Christian Garcia and Ryan Mattheus combined for another 2 1-3 innings of scoreless relief. Tyler Clippard surrendered Ruf’s second homer of the night in the eighth to make it a 3-2 game before Drew Storen pitched a perfect ninth for his fourth save.
After Ruf’s first homer in the fourth, the Nats tied it at 1 in the bottom of the inning when Bernadina singled with two outs to drive in LaRoche, had led off with a double.
Champ of the Game: LaRoche. This milestone game exemplified his veteran leadership as he showed the kids how it’s done, going 2-for-3 with the key homer and RBI. The solid power numbers put him in the National League MVP conversation, although he may be passed over.
Chump of the Game: Clippard. Ruf has proved to be a dangerous hitter against the Nats this season, but Clip has been unable to get key outs for the past week, no matter whether he’s setting up or closing. You have to wonder whether Johnson will give him more than once chance in the postseason.
Unsung Hero: Garcia has proven to be a real find among the Nats’ September call-ups, allowing just eight hits and two walks in 11 innings. With Johnson’s stated preference for a pitcher-heavy postseason roster, the 27-year-old rookie could find himself pitching in key situations in the playoffs.