PHILADELPHIA| After the Nationals’ 7-5 win over the Philadelphia Phillies on Thursday - a game where a team that had scored two runs after the fourth inning all season suddenly erupted for six after the seventh inning - manager Jim Riggleman was asked if he believed in clutch.
Riggleman, ever eager for lively baseball debate, reclined slightly in his chair as he does when he gets a question that lets him wax philosophical, and said:
“That can be a great discussion, because sometimes people say RBIs are a product of opportunity. Certainly, you have to have opportunity. But some guys have to have a knack for rising to the occasion. We have a couple of those guys.”
A couple of those guys, the Nationals have. The fact they beat the Phillies on Thursday afternoon was a confluence of all of them showing up at the right time.
How else to explain a win in a game where the Nationals were down 4-1 after seven innings, in a ballpark where they’d lost eight in row and 16 out of 18, with an offense that had scored two runs after the fourth inning all year? On a team that’s made a habit of losing these games in the past.
The right guys came through at the right time. And maybe that’s becoming more of a habit.
Everywhere you turned, there were clutch performances. Scott Olsen, a start removed from the minor leagues, kept the Phillies at bay for five innings until a couple walks burned him in the sixth inning. Ian Desmond dropped a two-out single in front of center fielder Shane Victorino for a run in the seventh. Adam Dunn hit his first homer of the year in the eighth inning, Ivan Rodriguez drew a key walk in the eighth and had a big hit in the ninth, and Ryan Zimmerman, making a pinch-hit appearance after missing three games with a tight left hamstring, blasted one of the iconic home runs of his time with the Nationals.
With one out in the eighth and the Nationals down 4-3, Zimmerman blasted a 1-0 fastball from Danys Baez that cleared the right-field fence on a line, gimping his way around the bases and silencing a crowd that has gotten so used to watching the home team snatch leads away from visitors, not the other way around.
“It kind of had that feeling something was going to happen,” closer Matt Capps said. “I saw him pump his fist, found the umpire as quick as I could and saw the home run signal. It’s kind of cool. It gave me some goosebumps.”
“Zimmerman, what else can you say?” Olsen said. “The Franchise did it again.”
The end result of all those heroics is this: In a nine-game stretch that’s included six against the two-time National League champions and two where Washington’s starting pitcher has lasted more than five innings (Olsen was the second on Thursday), the Nationals are 4-5. And they come home for 10 games having split their first road trip of the year.
“We let a couple slip away that we should have won,” Dunn said. “But anytime you play .500 on the road, it’s kind of the goal.”
Capps, of course, was not to be forgotten in all this. He’d never worked more than an inning for a save in his major-league career. But with setup man Brian Bruney having walked three batters the night before, Riggleman turned to Capps with one out in the eighth, asking him for his first multi-inning save.
It took 33 pitches, and even a pinch-hit appearance (the fifth at-bat of Capps’ career). And of course, it took a trip through the heart of the Phillies’ order, the Chase Utley-Ryan Howard-Jayson Werth progression that has broken so many closers in the last two seasons.
No matter. He started the ninth by giving up a homer to Shane Victorino and a single to Placido Polanco (who had six hits in the series), giving the Phillies’ three sluggers each a chance to tie the game. And then Capps froze Utley on a nasty 95-mph inside fastball, retired Howard when Willie Harris caught a screaming liner to left and got Werth to toss his bat at a changeup and pop up to center and end the game.
“You want to play against the best,” Capps said. “Especially the way Utley’s swinging the bat right now - he’s arguably the hottest hitter in baseball right now. To go up against him and (have) today be my day, I feel good about it.”
Capps was a little shaky, a good deal unsettling, but in the end, he was clutch.
He wasn’t the only one.