The ninth inning had a little bit of everything for the Nationals on Thursday in a thrilling 9-7 victory over the Pirates.
In a game the Nationals led throughout, they watched as the Pirates went right at their closer, Rafael Soriano, and scored four runs to tie the game in the top of the ninth. Reliever Ian Krol, in a rare move, replaced the Nationals closer and survived a rocky outing himself to strikeout Garrett Jones to end a tumultuous top half of the inning.
Pittsburgh handed the ball to Bryan Morris to get three outs in the bottom of the ninth to send the game into extras. The Nationals had other ideas.
Kurt Suzuki provided a one-out single to start the rally. With two outs and Roger Bernadina on base, Bryce Harper launched a deep drive laser over the left center field fence for a two-run shot to win the game, 9-7. The home run was Harper’s first walk-off round tripper of his young career.
Krol was first to admit he was amped up in the ninth.
“I haven’t felt nervous like that since my debut,” Krol said. “It was kind of crazy to be out there in that situation. Something I am not comfortable with, something that I don’t normally do. But like I have said a million times, you got to go out there and do your job, get batters out, make good pitches, attack the hitters and fill up the zone.”
Acting manager Randy Knorr, who replaced Davey Johnson following his ejection in the bottom of the fifth, got the feeling Soriano didn’t have his best stuff in the ninth.
“I was watching him pitch and in the past I have seen him pitch and when it is not a save opportunity and he doesn’t have same affect when he is pitching,” Knorr said. “He wasn’t throwing the ball over the plate. A couple of lefties were coming up. I like the way Krol throws the ball and I figured if you don’t want to be in the mode to shut the game down I will bring someone else in.”
It was a big decision for the bench coach turned manager for half the game. It was a decision he would have to make in the future if he gets the skipper job possibly next season.
Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman knew the decision to pull Soriano would change the game.
“It is not an easy decision to make,” Zimmerman said. “Nobody ever wants to do that to your closer. I’m glad I don’t have to make those kinds of decisions. Raffy (Soriano) has been great all year and Krol has been great all year. IT is unfortunate it happened that way, but both those guys are professionals and I am sure they will be fine.”
So after the Pirates scored four runs, the Nationals did not panic in the bottom of the ninth. Harper came through with the dramatic game-winning two-run shot that turned what would have been te most devastating of losses into a much needed win, and relief.
“It was pretty cool,” Harper said. “It was great to get the ‘W’ today, we really needed it. I was just trying to put something in the gap so Bernie could score. I was very happy we got the ‘W’ today. I am very excited that I could come through.”
Krol said there was a buzz in the bottom of the ninth on the bench that something special might happen.
“You could just feel it in the dugout,” Krol said. “You know something special is going to happen when you put him in that kind of situation. For me, I could care less about my win record. It is a team effort and that is what we showed today.”
Zimmerman, who is no stranger to walk off heroics himself, didn’t care how they got the win, just that they earned it after six losses in a row.
“We needed a win,” he said. “It didn’t really matter how we got it. Obviously, that is probably the most exciting way you can get a win. This team, we stick together. It has been a rough go so far this year. Nobody is more disappointed than all of us in here.
“We realize that not sticking together and blaming each other is only going to make it worse. We just got to keep going, keep grinding and go out there every day and try to win a ball game.”
The win was big for the psyche of the Nationals, who had to feel that uncomfortable anxiety of a six-game skid heavy on their shoulders when the Pirates tied the game.
Knorr said the importance of the streak-snapping victory was palpable during post game.
“That would have been tough to overcome,” Knorr said if they had not been able to hold off Pirates comeback.
“To tell you how it feels just walk in the club house right now you thought we won the world series or something. That is the way the game is right now. Hopefully this carries over for us. I think we are going to get on a roll here. I think it was a good game for us.”