ST. LOUIS - Well this one sure didn't lack excitement.
The Nationals jumped on top of the Cardinals 4-0 in the first inning on the most bizarre grand slam you'll ever see, punctuated by a Michael Morse fake swing. They then allowed three runs in the seventh inning and blew a save in the ninth, sending the game to extra innings. Kurt Suzuki followed that just minutes later with a two-out, tie-breaking double off the wall in left-center, and Craig Stammen earned his first career save in the bottom of the 10th.
Oh yeah, and because of the win, the Nationals know that all that they need to clinch the NL East title tomorrow afternoon is to pick up one more victory.
"It's fun. I like it," manager Davey Johnson said. "I'll sleep good tonight."
The division title can also be secured with a Braves loss, of course, but that's not how the Nats view this. They know that if they take care of business, they've got the NL East crown.
They got one step closer tonight, and even though he didn't get the win, Jordan Zimmermann helped take them there. Zimmermann hadn't surrendered a run and had allowed just four hits through his first six innings of work, but he faltered in the seventh, allowing three straight hits and a walk. He left the game with the score 4-2, then saw the Cardinals tack on one more in the seventh and tie it in the ninth.
"I really feel bad that we didn't save it for Zim," Johnson said. "He pitched a heck of a ballgame, a really great ballgame and unfortunately, we didn't save it. But he was outstanding.
"The fact is, normally, when he got to around 100 pitches, I would've hooked him, but I really liked the way he was throwing. The fifth and sixth inning he was really throwing the ball good. Sixth was probably his best inning. His velocity was there. I think he made a bad pitch to the shortstop, (Pete Kozma, on a two-run double in the seventh,) he came inside on him. We didn't locate on some guys in the lineup. We know how to pitch them, but we didn't locate the way we wanted to late in the ballgame. I don't know if it's jitters from being in a pennant race or whatever, but that hasn't happened in the past."
Drew Storen blew his first save of the season in the ninth, allowing back-to-back ground ball singles to Kozma and Daniel Descalso and then a game-tying sac fly to Jon Jay.
"The way he located a couple pitches to some guys, that's not the way we pitch them," Johnson said. "And he knows how to pitch them. But I think that situation, we were not going with the game plan, we were a little hyped. The situation got us a little hyped."
In the 10th, Adam LaRoche stood on second base with two outs, but instead of facing a struggling Danny Espinosa from the left side, the Cardinals intentionally walked him to have Fernando Salas face Suzuki, who has been on fire the last few weeks. Johnson said he understood the move, as the Cardinals wanted to get a righty-on-righty matchup, but the decision backfired when Suzuki delivered the game-winning knock.
"Oh, he's been outstanding," Johnson said of Suzuki. "It seems like the last 10 games, he's been swinging a hot bat and getting big hits, maybe longer than that, but I really like his approach. He's a gamer, he likes those situations. That was huge."
As for that grand slam in the first inning, in which Morse, LaRoche, Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper had to go back to the bases they were originally on when the ball was hit before trotting home, Johnson could only laugh when asked about the whole situation after the game.
"Ask (the umps)," Johnson said. "I guess (they wanted) to make sure everyone touches the bases rather than... whatever. I don't know how they missed it to begin with. I thought it hit the concrete and came back. But I've been in those situations before, and at least they got it right. That was good."
The Nats were well aware that the Braves won tonight, meaning they wouldn't clinch the division until tomorrow at the earliest. But they still took a pivotal step tonight, battling against a quality team and emerging with a hard-fought win.
"The makeup on this club's outstanding," Johnson said. "We've done things like that all year. You don't win 96 games without being tough, and I've got a tough group over there.
"We're in a pennant race, and we're not wilting. So that's the good news."