The symbolism was hard to miss: The Nationals, coming off the third-worst month in franchise history, were headed toward losing another game in the fashion they dropped so many in June - a low-scoring game where their starter pitched well enough to win, but the team instead went home with a loss.
They were trailing 1-0 in the seventh, having just pinch hit for Livan Hernandez and officially denying him a chance to win a game where he allowed one run in seven innings.
Nyjer Morgan, as big a whipping boy during the Nationals’ 8-19 month of June as any, was at the plate, already 0-for-3 with a pair of strikeouts against Johan Santana. When Morgan - who’s hitting .228 against lefties - got to two strikes, the result seemed unavoidable.
What happened instead was so surprising, it felt like an abrupt change of course. Morgan punched a 2-2 fastball to left, tying the game at one and bringing home Ian Desmond, another June casualty dealing with his own bad luck in the first game of July. In the ninth, it was struggling pinch hitter Willie Harris working a walk, Morgan bunting his way on with a beautiful ball down the first-base line, Cristian Guzman singling and Ryan Zimmerman (coming off a .245 June) doing the only thing he needed to, lifting a sac fly to right when the Mets packed their infield with five players, delivering a walk-off blow in a 2-1 win over New York.
If that wasn’t enough to turn the Nationals around, it was a whole lot of kismet wasted.
“That’s the ebb and flow of the season,” manager Jim Riggleman said. “Very seldom is a guy just on top of his game on Day One. When you go through those things, you’ve still got to find a way to win ballgames. We just haven’t done that in June. You don’t get too caught up in the calendar, but June is over.”
The truth is, the Nationals will have to do a lot more than what they did on Thursday to build a strong 10-game homestand against three playoff contenders (the Mets, Padres and Giants) and go into the second half with some momentum.
But the kind of win they put together on Thursday - clean defense, sturdy pitching, timely hitting - is a formula the Nationals have shown they know how to repeat when they’re playing well.
They were usually missing two of those three components at one time or another in June. More often than not, though, it was clutch hitting, or a lack thereof, that kept the Nationals from winning last month; their team ERA was actually lower than it was in April or May.
If Thursday’s win wasn’t enough for the Nationals to put a stake in the ground and declare that July will be different than June, it was at least enough to make them believe it’s possible.
“Nyjer gets a big hit, Willie has a huge at-bat against (Pedro) Feliciano and Nyjer bunts one,” Zimmerman said. “It’s nice to win a one-run game.”