Game 122: Nationals 5, Braves 4 (13 innings)


So this is what a pennant race feels like.

After a 53 minute rain delay and nearly four and a half hours of unbearable tension and stellar pitching by both teams, the Washington Nationals, in one of the biggest baseball games in Washington, D.C. in nearly 80 years, used three infield singles, Danny Espinosa and Kurt Suzuki‘s heads-up base running, and Dan Uggla‘s indecision after a near game-saving diving stop to defeat the Atlanta Braves 5-4 in 13 innings.

Pinch hitter Chad Tracy delivered the game winning hit with one out, lining a ball on one hop off the wet grass toward Uggla. For the Nationals, Danny Espinosa, who botched a sacrifice bunt then went to third on Suzuki’s infield chop when no one covered the bag for Atlanta, broke from third base.

For a moment, Uggla looked to have a chance to nail Espinosa at home, but he struggled to get a good grip on the ball, the Nationals Park grass wet with the early evening rain and post-midnight dew. But when the chance to get Espinosa literally slipped away, Uggla still had options.

He could have thrown to second to attempt a 4-6-3 double play, but his hesitation meant even slow-footed Chad Tracy, running out of the left handed batter’s box, would beat the return throw. Stationed near first, he could have tagged out Suzuki and flipped to first for the inning ending double play. After dropping the ball, he looked to his left expecting to find Suzuki nearby.

Except, in a deft display of heads-up non-base running, the Nationals’ catcher froze. As Uggla, who later admitted he lost track of Suzuki. lurched toward him, Suzuki leaned back toward first. Had Uggla thrown to first to get Tracy it would have removed the force play and, even if Suzuki was later put out, Espinosa’s run would have counted.

It became a moot point as the ball slipped from the indecisive Uggla’s grasp before he could do anything. Eventually, Tracy lumbered past first base, Uggla left the ball laying on the grass, and Suzuki sprinted toward his teammates crowded around Tracy, as the exhausted Nationals celebrated their 76th victory of the season and a six game lead over the Braves.

Much earlier in the game, it looked like the Nationals would win in more traditional fashion. After the Braves raced to a 1-0 lead to begin the game, Washington rocked Braves’ starter Tim Hudson for four runs, including Ian Desmond‘s two-run homer, his first hit since returning from the disabled list.

With Jordan Zimmermann, sporting the lowest ERA in baseball, on the mound for the Nats, it looked like the home team, behind a rain-dampened, yet still disappointingly small crowd of 21,298, was headed for a traditional nine inning victory.

But the Braves patient approach in a game they desperately wanted to win, combined with Zimmermann’s uncharacteristic struggles with command, enabled them to fight back to tie the game, 4-4. Jason Heyward‘s two-run homer in the 5th knotted the score. At that point, in what seemed like a break for Atlanta, the Nationals’ starter had slogged through 102 pitches and left the game. Hudson lasted six frames for the Braves.

After that, the two teams’ strong bullpens settled into a tense battle. Both teams had numerous chances to score in nearly every inning. For the Nationals, Jayson Werth narrowly missed a grand slam in the bottom of the 8th. Heyward caught his drive at the top of the right field wall, less than two feet from clearing the fence. In the 10th, Adam LaRoche‘s sky high fly ball looked to be a game-winning home run, but settled into Heyward’s glove less than a foot from victory.

The Braves had runners in scoring position in the 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, and 11th innings, but seven Washington relievers, Davey Johnson’s entire bullpen, kept them at bay. Johnson even had Edwin Jackson warming up in the bullpen had Tracy’s smash not ended the long, but eventually joyful evening for the Nationals and their fans.

In the end, five Braves relievers pitched 6 1/3 innings and surrendered a single run. The Nationals seven fireman out dueled them, throwing eight shutout innings, brilliant when their team most needed them to be.

Champ of the Game: The Nationals bullpen, especially Craig Stammen, who threw the final two innings of scoreless relief and earned his sixth win.

Honorable mention goes to Espinosa and Suzuki’s, whose hustle and intelligence allowed the Nats to score the winning run without hitting a ball to the outfield.

For the Braves, Heyward drove in three runs and made the two catches at the wall. Hudson deserves mention for recovering from an abysmal beginning to keep his team in the game.

Chump of the Game: Both teams played far too well for any to merit a “chump” label. The game itself was sublime, worthy of any pennant race in any season.

However, the Washington Nationals organization and Metro do get the chump label for not negotiating an agreement to run trains past their normal midnight shutdown when games run late. After the euphoria of the Nats’ walk-off win, fans who took Metro to the game, but failed to see the scoreboard announcement of the end of service for the night, were left stranded. Those who did see the note had to choose between leaving the best baseball game in D.C. since 1933 or cobbling together last-minute alternatives. Both Metro and the Nationals organization pulled a bush league blunder. It should never happen again.

A small “boo” goes to the Washington fans. Bad weather or not, having fewer than 22,000 show up for a key pennant race game is rather pathetic. DC fans need to do better.

Unsung Hero: Suzuki called a great game behind the plate, got two clutch hits, and made one of the best, albeit the strangest, base running decisions during the game’s pivotal moment.

Next Game: Tuesday, August 21, 7:05 p.m. at Nationals Park. The pennant race battle continues as Stephen Strasburg (14-5, 2.91) faces the Barves’ excellent trade deadline acquisition Paul Maholm (11-7, 3.39).