For those wondering how many times a team can hit “rock bottom” in one week, the answer remains thankfully, incomplete, thanks to Bryce Harper rescuing dramatic victory from the jaws of comfortable victory in Thursday’s 9-7, get-away day victory for the Washington Nationals over the Pittsburgh Pirates, helping the Nats avoid a four-game sweep and at least temporarily lifting the mood in the first base clubhouse at Nationals Park.
Harper’s two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth off Pittsburgh’s Bryan Morris gave the Nationals their first post All-Star Break victory, but, in typical 2013 Nats fashion, it wasn’t going to come easy. An early four-run inning fueled by three Pittsburgh miscues turned into a non-save situational appearance for Rafael Soriano, which then turned into a tie ballgame. Only Harper’s center-field blast kept the Nationals from circling the bowl with regards to the 2013 postseason in an odd game that featured the ejections of both teams’ managers.
Talking Point A from this one, however, will probably be the Nationals ninth-inning bullpen meltdown. Holding a 7-3 advantage, Soriano was summoned for his first appearance of the series, but as is his wont, the Washington closer struggled to get into the game in a non-save situation. That led to back-to-back walks to start the inning, followed by a double by Jordy Mercer that drove in a run and brought the tying run to the plate.
After Soriano admirable fanned Nats nemesis Andrew McCutchen, Russell Martin drove in another run with a single. At this point, with left-handed hitting Pedro Alvarez stepping in, Washington bench coach Randy Knorr went to the mound.
A brief explanation — Knorr was left in charge by Davey Johnson after the Nats manager was tossed in the fifth inning. The Nationals had loaded the bases against Pirates starter A.J. Burnett with no one out, but both Jayson Werth and Ian Desmond were rung up by home plate ump Mike Winters, whose strike zone ranged from generous to brutal over the course of the afternoon. With Desmond demonstrable unhappy and on the verge of getting sent to the showers, Johnson sacrificed himself by going out to get into Winters’s grill.
So it was up to Knorr to make the move that Johnson might not have made — lefty Ian Krol was summoned in to relieve Soriano and try and save the game. Krol, who told Amanda Comak of the Washington Times he was as nervous as he’s been in the big leagues facing the save situation, walked Alvarez to load the bases. The rookie rallied to fan pinch-hitter Jose Tabata, but Josh Harrison grounded a single to center to score two runs, tie the game and send more than one Washington fan to the bar. It was Harrison’s second big hit of the game, having earlier hit a two-run homer off Washington starter Gio Gonzalez in the fifth inning to shave the early Washington advantage to 4-3.
Krol finished the inning with a strikeout of Garrett Jones, but the questions at this point were numerous. Could anything else go wrong for the Nats? How would Soriano react to being pulled in the middle of an inning? Was there anything left in the tank for this one?
Thankfully, the answer was yes. Kurt Suzuki got it started for Washington with a one-out single in the last of the ninth, and after Roger Bernadina hit into a fielder’s choice, it was left to Harper to blast his first homer since July 1 and first career walk-off blast.
The game-winner capped off a splendid day for Harper, who scored three times and finished a triple shy of the cycle. Before the ninth-inning heroics, it was looking like Steve Lombardozzi was going to be the star of the show. Filling in for Anthony Rendon at second base, Lombardozzi collected a pair of doubles among his three hits and made two stellar, run-saving plays in the field in back-to-back innings early on to help Gonzalez keep Washington’s lead intact.
The Nationals’ longest homestand of the year enters the homestretch on Friday as the New York Mets come in for four games in three days. A day-night doubleheader is on tap for Friday, with Jordan Zimmermann (12-5, 3.01 ERA) looking to rebound from a terrible outing in the opener against the Mets Jenrry Mejia, making his first start of the season after an elbow injury sidelined him for the first half. Ross Ohlendorf (2-0, 2.03) squares off against New York’s Matt Harvey (8-2, 2.23) in the nightcap.