As he stood in the batter’s box with two outs in the bottom of the eighth, fouling off pitch after pitch, Adam Eaton heard some random pockets of the stands at Nationals Park begin to cheer. He wasn’t exactly sure what had happened, but he knew they weren’t cheering his foul balls off Richard Rodríguez.
What Eaton didn’t know was that 2.4 miles north of here at Capital One Arena, Brooks Orpik had just scored in overtime to give the Capitals a Game 2 win over the Hurricanes in their first-round Stanley Cup Playoffs series.
Perhaps subconsciously, though, Eaton knew. He’s a legitimate hockey fan, and he not only attended Game 1 on Thursday but led the crowd in the game-opening “Let’s Go Caps!” cheer. So perhaps the Nationals leadoff man summoned some extra bit of power from the reigning champs up the road when, on the ninth pitch he saw from Pirates reliever Rodríguez, Eaton uncorked a mighty swing and sent the ball flying into the right field stands to bring his team back from the dead.
“I’m glad it kind of trickled down,” the spunky right fielder said later, wearing a Caps hat. “What are we, 1 1/2-2 miles down the road from there? Pretty cool that both of us could pull it off today.”
Eaton’s game-tying homer off Rodríguez got the Nationals off the mat. A mere 43 seconds later, Howie Kendrick’s game-winning homer off Rodríguez’s very next pitch propelled them to an unlikely 3-2 victory.
“For him to come up for us right there was huge, to tie the game,” Kendrick said. “To follow him up there, I was like: ‘I want to get a pitch I can drive.’ Wasn’t necessarily thinking trying to hit a homer or anything. It just happened that way.”
D.C. sports fans couldn’t be happier how it all happened in the span of two minutes.
They had been providing periodic Caps updates on the scoreboard throughout the afternoon, but there wasn’t time to let the baseball crowd know about the OT winner until after the bottom of the eighth had ended. So it was good, old-fashioned, word-of-mouth that spread through the park at 6:13 p.m. as Eaton was in the middle of his long at-bat.
Eaton already had delivered on a 10-pitch at-bat to open the bottom of the first, ultimately singling off Pirates starter Chris Archer. This at-bat vs. Rodríguez didn’t last quite as long, but the end result was far more meaningful.
“I saw that guy yesterday,” said Eaton, who grounded out against Rodríguez in the seventh inning of Friday night’s loss. “I saw three pitches and took a bad swing on a pitch that I thought I could maybe hit a single with. Today I was just going in there trying to battle again. I’m just fortunate good things happened.”
“That’s why I like him up in that leadoff spot: Because he can run 8, 9, 10-pitch at-bats,” manager Davey Martinez said. “And also get a hit after that. But he’s just really good up there.”
Kendrick hasn’t needed to work the count as much, but the veteran has been putting together a boatload of quality at-bats since making his delayed season debut last weekend. When he came up to bat following Eaton’s homer, he was 5-for-9 on the season, and two of the outs were rockets hit right at the center fielder.
This time, Kendrick got some air under one of those rockets. He launched Rodriguez’s first pitch 435 feet to left field, setting off the loudest cheer of the day from the crowd of 32,103.
“The results are great; I’m not complaining about that,” Kendrick said. “But the key for me is trying to put together good at-bats. Trying to be a part of the team. ... Obviously, the results have been there, but I’m just happy to be able to help the team out.”
The back-to-back blasts turned a 2-1 deficit into a sudden 3-2 lead. But none of that would’ve been possible without Aníbal Sánchez’s seven strong innings to begin the afternoon and then a clutch, 1-2-3 top of the eighth from Wander Suero, the latest reliever thrust into a setup role by Martinez in an attempt to solidify what has been a mess of a bullpen to date.
“I thank the team and Davey for an opportunity to pitch in a big inning like that in the game,” Suero said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “I just try to give my little grain of sand out there and help out any way I can.”
Suero’s clean top of the eighth and Eaton and Kendrick’s heroics in the bottom of the eighth allowed Sean Doolittle to then take the mound for the top of the ninth and close it out for (remarkably) the Nationals’ first save of the season.
Such has been the wild nature of the Nationals’ first 13 games. Maybe it’s not as tense as playoff hockey. But when it’s paired up with drama on the ice just up the road, it makes for an awfully entertaining couple of minutes.
As Martinez put it: “Good day in the city of D.C.”