By the bottom of the ninth of the Nationals' game against the Mariners on Tuesday night, a collection of players had already retired to the home clubhouse. Livan Hernandez had left after his shortest outing of the year (10 hits in four-plus innings), Laynce Nix had come out early to rest his sore Achilles tendon, John Lannan was in the clubhouse before his start tomorrow and Collin Balester and Ryan Mattheus had already pitched, figuring their shutout work was only to prevent a likely loss from getting worse.
And really, there was no reason for them to think otherwise. The Nationals hadn't done anything in eight innings off Doug Fister, Hernandez had given up more hits in the first two innings than he did in his complete-game shutout in his last start and they were down 5-1 heading into the ninth.
But here's where the difference comes in between what the Nationals are doing now and what they'd done last year, the year before or earlier this season: They got a couple breaks, in the form of a dubious managerial decision, an error and a shot off a reliever's leg, and pretty soon, they'd gone from being on life support (an 0.5 percent chance of winning after Ryan Zimmerman's double play, according to Fangraphs' Win Expectancy chart) to starting two mosh pits - one at home plate after Wilson Ramos' walk-off homer, the other in the clubhouse for those watching on TV.
"We were jumping up like we're five, we won a T-ball game and we're about to go get a Sno-cone," Balester said.
If you're keeping track, that's three games on this homestand the Nationals have either won with comebacks greater than four runs or on a walk-off. On Tuesday, they did both, staging the biggest ninth-inning-or-later comeback they've had since they moved to Washington and providing further evidence they're made of better stuff than previous teams to darken the home clubhouse doors at Nationals Park.
Instead of falling to three games below .500, the Nationals stopped themselves from losing their second straight game and now have another shot to even their record on Wednesday night. They got plenty of gifts from the Mariners - especially when manager Eric Wedge pulled Fister because he was worried about the 6-foot-8 right-hander cramping in the humidity - and they wasted none of them.
"Maybe earlier in the year, things don't go our way and things don't fall the way we want them to," said second baseman Danny Espinosa, who ripped the first pitch he saw from David Pauley for a single after Michael Morse knocked closer Brandon League out of the game with a shot off his leg. "It's not just luck, but having good at-bats and playing good ball."
It could have been a game that was well out of reach after Hernandez left in the fifth inning, but Balester, Mattheus and Todd Coffey pitched five scoreless innings, throwing as though the game was still within reach. That's probably easier to do for Balester and Mattheus, who are trying to show they should stick in the majors after recent call-ups, but never automatic.
"You have to stay focused, or else it'll get to you," Mattheus said. "I know I'm going to be pitching in a lot of games like this, so I just look at it as, I've got to give us any chance I can to win."
Their reward was a celebration that reverberated through two levels of the stadium. It's not the kind of thing teams get to do often, but every once in a while, good teams find a way to make it happen.
"I think we were a little flat early in the game," outfielder Jayson Werth said. "We weren't in the game there until the end. It was a big win, no doubt about it."