As much as late-April baseball games can be key moments in the course of a season, this one was. And as much as they can have meaty subplots, this one did.
Back in the Nationals' lineup on Thursday night, after a three-week slump to start the season and two days more memorable than just about anything he'll do on a baseball field, was shortstop Ian Desmond. The 25-year-old became a father at 3:56 p.m. Tuesday, when his wife Chelsey gave birth to a 6-pound, 11-ounce boy, Grayson Wesley Desmond, that the shortstop spent the night holding in one arm while watching the Nationals-Mets game on a smartphone in his other hand.
And on the mound was Livan Hernandez, whose last outing was turned sour by a rain delay that forced him to finish his warmup routine in the top of the first inning in Pittsburgh. On Wednesday, reports out of Puerto Rico linked Hernandez to convicted Puerto Rican drug dealer Angel Ayala Vazquez, saying Vazquez had several exotic cars and a warehouse registered in Hernandez's name.
When both players took the field Thursday, before a game the Nationals needed to halt a losing streak, their minds could have been in any one of a thousand other places. Instead, they helped the Nationals win.
Desmond homered, tripled and scored two runs, and Hernandez allowed three runs (two earned) in eight innings as the Nationals avoided a sweep with a 4-3 win over the Mets. It stopped a three-game losing streak just before a 13-game stretch against the Giants, Phillies, Braves and Marlins. The Nationals failed to stockpile wins before that against the Pirates and Mets, losing four of six against those teams, but they at least put themselves in a good spot before facing two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum on Friday.
"That's a great game by both of them," said reliever Drew Storen, who earned his fourth consecutive save. "Those are huge performances, to really pick up the two tough games we started with."
Their young shortstop and their 36-year-old starter were at the center of it. Desmond and Hernandez are two of the mentally toughest players the Nationals have, and each one's focus was at a peak on Thursday.
Manager Jim Riggleman gave Desmond a day off Sunday before he left for paternity leave, saying the shortstop "has a lot on his mind" before the birth of his son. Desmond brushed off that notion - or at least declined to use it as a reason for his struggles - again Thursday, saying he didn't feel any different on a baseball field after the birth of his son than he did before it.
And yet, the way he played against the Mets suggested something completely different. He made steady, measured throws from the shortstop position, after committing several errors early this season because he was rushing plays in the field. His triple in the fourth inning nearly left the park; his shot off a Chris Capuano changeup in the sixth inning did.
"I just thought he was very loose tonight," Riggleman said of Desmond. "Fatherhood exceeds anything we do out here, anyway. I know he's at a special time in life. I'm just really happy for him. I'm really glad to see him have a nice, loose ballgame with everything else that's going on in his life right now. This just tops it off here tonight."
Said Hernandez: "Big Daddy is coming today. I called him yesterday, and he sent me some pictures of the baby. He's very happy. I know for a lot of players, you go have a baby, and it's difficult. He came back today relaxed, and you see him today. It's unbelievable."
And the Nationals' starting pitcher delivered the longest outing any of their starters has had this season. He worked through a sharp bullpen session before the game, and said he knew then he was set up for a good night.
Paired again with veteran Ivan Rodriguez after a couple starts with Wilson Ramos, Hernandez effectively spotted all of his pitches, throwing a 53-mph curveball to Jason Bay in the second inning for a groundout. He froze Daniel Murphy with a sinker in the fifth inning, stranding men on first and third with a called strikeout. And on offense, Hernandez set up a fourth-inning run with some gamesmanship.
With Jerry Hairston Jr. on third, Hernandez dropped a bunt just down the first base line, pausing for a second as the ball skittered in front of him. Effectively, he boxed out catcher Josh Thole, who tried to turn back to home and tag Hairston, and everyone ended up safe as the Nationals took a 3-1 lead.
"I've done that play before. This is the way I do it - when the ball doesn't go too far, you've got to wait, so the catcher doesn't catch the ball fast and throw the people out more easily, or make the out at home plate. I did it last year, too," Hernandez said.
Asked if he was worried about interference, Hernandez said, "No, because I'm the runner. (If) the guy pushed me, I can't get out of the box like that. If he hits me, I'm going down and maybe it's the catcher's mistake."
Later, he got asked about the allegations against him, and Hernandez let them slide off almost as easily as the concern he'd blocked Thole.
"We're good. We don't have a problem. I'm going to let you know one day," Hernandez said. "Whatever came out in the papers, if they do not say the truth, it's OK. I can't do nothing when something came out. I can't do nothing."
On Thursday, he and Desmond stepped into situations they could control, and they helped the Nationals to a key win.
"Whether the game goes good or bad, I'm always in front of my locker. I'm always answering questions," Desmond said. "I know it's a long season, and there's ups and downs. I think now, it's going up. It was going up before I left. Things happen throughout the year. I'm not going to give any credit to Grayson, or my wife or whatever. It's me. I'm out here playing."