The Nationals were three outs away from a brutal loss at the hands of the Braves, a defeat that would’ve delivered a big hit to their already-slim playoff hopes.
They would’ve fallen to 5 1/2 games back in the wild card race. They would’ve given the Braves a chance to clinch the NL East title tonight with another win. They would’ve dropped to 4-13 this season against Atlanta.
Instead, they came back against arguably the toughest closer in baseball, scoring three runs in the bottom of the ninth and earning a thrilling walk-off 6-5 win when Denard Span’s grounder got through Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons for a two-run error.
Talk about an emotional turnaround.
“Oh, night and day,” manager Davey Johnson said. “I said coming in here, we have to show these guys that we can beat them. We were 4-12, we don’t want them thinking they can just roll over us. That was huge in that respect.”
After jumping out to a 3-0 lead in the first inning, the Nats then spent much of the next eight frames self-destructing. They had just one hit from the first inning until the ninth, saw their bullpen give up three runs, and made two crucial errors in the ninth that allowed a key insurance run to come around.
And still, after all that, the Nats ended up with a victory.
“We gave it to them,” Johnson said. “It seems like every time we played them it’s been just a small difference and they’ve come out on top. But I think they swept us last time they were here. We just have to show them, ‘This is our home. This is our yard. You can’t do that to us.’
“I feel we’ve got as good or better a ballclub. We’ve had very little success against their bullpen so it’s nice to score some runs off their closer but I reckon we haven’t hardly scored off their bullpen and they’ve roughed mine up a little.”
The Nats took a 3-2 lead to the eighth before Tyler Clippard served up a two-run homer to Evan Gattis to put Atlanta on top. Then, in the ninth, left fielder Bryce Harper made a silly throwing error trying to throw behind Elliot Johnson at first base, allowing Johnson to move into scoring position. He then scored on Ian Desmond’s two-out error, a play he probably could make with his eyes closed.
But the Nats came back on Craig Kimbrel, who came into the outing with a 1.04 ERA on the season. Adam LaRoche walked, Wilson Ramos reached on an infield single and Anthony Rendon walked, loading the bases with none out. After a Chad Tracy groundout brought in a run to make it 5-4, Span shot a ball up the middle that the normally sure-handed Simmons couldn’t handle.
That allowed two more runs to score, and the Nats celebrated by jumping all over Span on the infield, slapping him on the helmet and punching him in the ribs.
“Obviously (Kimbrel) didn’t have his good command, but Willy had a good at-bat but he was chasing a lot of high fastballs,” Johnson said. “That was a big hit he got up the middle and Rendon went to bunt, he was trying to throw the ball up again, got behind, walked him, and actually Tracy, that was a good at-bat for Tracy. Getting a tough play at first, that could’ve gotten by him and set it all up.
“I was a little shocked (Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez) had the infield back in the ninth there. I don’t know if that would’ve been a clean hit if they were up front but I liked the fact that if we put the ball in play we were going to be tied. I don’t know where the alignment would’ve been in the infield was in but they have such a deep bullpen they feel like as long as they don’t give up the winning run they’re all right. But shortstop must’ve been a tough position. Desi doesn’t hardly make errors and neither does Simmons. I don’t think he got a glove on it. ...
“We’d only had one hit after the first inning and I had a rested bullpen and they roughed ‘em up for three runs. Clip is never hardly giving up anything. They got him. We made a couple bad mistakes. Harper, I don’t know what he’s thinking. It’s only fitting the way it turned out that we got their superman closer. It was worth it all.”