The two moments unfolded almost in slow motion, a long enough timeframe to allow for looks of disbelief and silent debates about whether they could really happen.
In the fourth inning, it was Angel Pagan racing 360 feet around the bases, as Nyjer Morgan crashed hard into the wall in right center and Josh Willingham was slow with a long relay. He beat Ivan Rodriguez’s tag at home plate and recorded the first inside-the-park homer at Nationals Park.
In the fifth, it was Pagan racing in from center on Cristian Guzman’s low liner, making a shoestring catch and lobbing the ball carelessly into the infield as the Nationals’ two baserunners - Livan Hernandez at third, Nyjer Morgan at second - remained frozen, not knowing if the ball had been caught but knowing they could be thrown out if they guessed wrong either way. They stood at their bases like they were claimed territory, and the Mets regrouped in time to double them off in succession - first Hernandez, then Morgan.
All of this happened with Hernandez pitching on three days’ rest and the Nationals playing their first game after arriving back in Washington at 4 a.m. on Wednesday, fresh off a five-game losing streak to finish a nine-game road trip. And the remarkable thing was, they still won.
Post this victory, a 5-3 win over the Mets, into the growing ledger of games the Nationals simply do not take a year ago. In 2009, an inside-the-park homer and a triple play would have been punchline fodder. This year, the Nationals calmly floated through both of them. In the process, they ended their losing streak, got back above .500 and regained a little swagger by way of stumbling.
“It just shows our character. We’ve got a great group of guys here,” Morgan said. “It’s one of those things where we know we’ve got a good team here. We’re not running on full cylinders yet, but we know we can play with any team in the league.”
Hernandez allowed two runs in 6 1/3 innings, keeping the game tied at two, and Drew Storen took over for a pair of quick - if hard-hit - outs to end the Mets’ half of the seventh. In the bottom of the inning, the Nationals battled back for three runs, putting the game away for good.
Roger Bernadina started the inning with a check-swing double. Pinch-hitter Adam Kennedy drove him in with a sacrifice fly, and Morgan drew a two-out walk. Guzman and Ryan ZImmerman followed with a triple and a single, and the Nationals had a 5-2 lead. The Mets would pull within two on a Fernando Tatis homer off Matt Capps in the ninth, but that was nowhere near enough to keep the Nationals from ending their slide.
“This is going to happen,” Kennedy said. “Good teams don’t let it bother them - and it hasn’t bothered us. We still play the game right. We just haven’t been hitting. Teams do that, so it’s not like we were playing bad baseball.”
Manager Jim Riggleman was similarly nonchalant, saying the losing would have bothered him much more had the Nationals not kept up their quality of play - “I think these other teams know we’re not fun to play against,” he said before the game - and the Nationals shook free of another spot where a loss would’ve invited comparisons to last year.
The catalyst to the win, as it’s been frequently this year, was Hernandez, who walked into Riggleman’s office after a doubleheader last week in Colorado and interrupted a conversation between the manager and pitching coach Steve McCatty about how the Nationals would staff this game when the doubleheader threw off their pitchers’ schedules. Hernandez volunteered to pitch the game, and was as big of a rock on the mound as his gesture suggested.
“It maybe got your guys’ attention, but not ours,” Kennedy said. “He’s tremendous. We wouldn’t expect anything less from him.”
He took a no-hitter into the fourth inning before Pagan’s inside-the-park homer broke it up, and allowed just one more run the rest of the night. His only moment of trepidation, other than the homer, was getting doubled off second base in the triple play.
“I’m at third base, and I think he dropped the ball,” Hernandez said. “When I see the umpire called ‘out’, I said, ‘Uh-oh.’ And when I see Morgan at second base, I said, ‘Uh-oh.’ I said, ‘We in trouble.’”
But it didn’t matter. The Nationals kept the game tied, in part because Storen stranded an inherited runner in the seventh inning, throwing mostly fastballs to Jose Reyes and Luis Castillo. They each hit BBs, but both of them found their way to shortstop Ian Desmond, who ended the inning. Then, the Nationals put Storen in line for his first big-league win with the seventh-inning charge.
Tyler Clippard, who looked wild and overworked for most of the last week, pitched a 1-2-3 eighth inning, and Matt Capps got his 15th save despite allowing a homer in the ninth.
Storen got his win, and not one, but two shaving cream pies; he tweeted a couple hours after the game that his eyes were still watering from the twin attacks. He stood at his locker after the game and asserted that the win belonged to Hernandez, who took the ball on short rest and gave the Nationals a chance.
Whoever the win belonged to, it was a sign that this team isn’t so easy to push out of mind.
“It didn’t have a good feeling to it. The energy in our dugout was good before the game, during the game, everything was great,” Riggleman said. “You’ve got to get a break now and then. Roger’s check-swing double down the left-field line, that’s the thing that had not been going our way a little bit, that was going our way earlier, and it went our way tonight. It ended up being the biggest run of the ballgame.”