It had to come eventually. The Nationals simply couldn't keep squandering every single scoring opportunity they had in the postseason, right?
No, there actually is enough talent in this lineup to deliver big hits in big spots. But who in their wildest dreams expected the guy to deliver the biggest hit of them all to be Jose Lobaton?
The longtime backup catcher, pressed into a high-profile role after teammate Wilson Ramos tore his ACL during the final week of the regular season, indeed came through with the defining hit of this National League Division Series to date. His three-run homer off Rich Hill in the bottom of the fourth this afternoon propelled the previously sluggish Nationals to a momentum-shifting, 5-2 victory over the Dodgers in Game 2.
Just like that, what looked like an awfully dire situation for the Nationals looks far brighter. The best-of-five series is knotted at one game apiece. And now both clubs take the long flight west to Los Angeles for the quick turnaround before Game 3 begins at 4:08 p.m. EDT on Monday at Dodger Stadium.
Lobaton provided the big blast, but Daniel Murphy provided a pair of clutch RBI singles to extend the lead. And a Nationals bullpen that was the source of so much past October misery strung together 4 2/3 innings of scoreless baseball to completely shut down the Dodgers lineup and ensure there was no inkling of a comeback.
Put that all together, and you had quite the party on South Capitol Street, with a sellout crowd of 43,826 that turned out after Saturday's game was postponed loving every minute of it.
A relatively uniformed viewer might well have watched the first two innings of Game 2 and assumed it was a re-air of Game 1. It might as well have been.
Corey Seager launched a homer in the top of the first. The Dodgers starting pitcher struck out the side in the bottom of the first. The Nationals loaded the bases in the bottom of the second and failed to score. All of those events happened in Game 1. All of those events happened in Game 2.
That surely left a sinking feeling in many fans' stomachs, even more when the Dodgers extended their lead to 2-0 in the top of the third on a walk and two singles, with Josh Reddick driving in the run.
There may be nobody on the Nationals pitching staff, however, better at turning harrowing situations into positive results than Tanner Roark. The right-hander wasn't anywhere close to his best today, but he did come through just enough when he most needed to come through.
Roark somehow wriggled his way out of two bases-loaded, one-out jams in consecutive innings. He struck out Hill and got Chase Utley to ground out in the second. He got Yasmani Grandal to ground into a double play in the third.
That kept the deficit a manageable 2-0. The Nationals just needed to convert one of their own scoring opportunities for a change. Which they finally did. In dramatic fashion.
When Lobaton grounded into a 1-2-3 double play with the bases loaded in the second, it seemed fair to question why a guy who was 1-for-15 against left-handers this season was starting behind the plate today against Hill instead of rookie Pedro Severino. And then the longtime backup catcher delivered the kind of October moment that instantly changes everyone's perceptions of him.
Feasting on a hanging curveball from Hill, Lobaton sent the ball soaring to left field. It cut directly through the 25-mph wind blowing in from the north-northwest. And it cleared the fence, sending the sellout crowd into a frenzy.
That three-run homer, so unexpected, might as well have been a gigantic sigh of relief, from both the Nationals themselves and the crowd of 43,826. See, they could deliver a big hit in October after all. And they could take a lead for the first time in this series.
And they could extend it. Trea Turner's leadoff single (and subsequent steal of second base) set the table in the bottom of the fifth. Bryce Harper's opposite-field single (one pitch after he unsuccessfully tried to bunt) left ducks on the pond. And Murphy's RBI single up the middle brought home an all-important insurance run, giving the Nationals a 4-2 lead.
And Murphy wasn't done yet. His seventh-inning, two-out RBI single to left scored Jayson Werth and left the MVP candidate 4-for-6 with a .750 on-base percentage so far in this series. It also left the Nats with a 5-2 lead.
Dusty Baker, of course, still needed his bullpen to record 14 postseason outs to complete this victory. The veteran manager knew he'd need to lean hard on his left-handers, and he did just that, using Marc Rzepczynski and Sammy Solis to get five outs. Right-hander Blake Treinen retired all four batters he faced before lefty Oliver Perez entered to record the final two outs of the eighth.
That made for a nice, easy ninth inning for Mark Melancon. Not to mention a very pleasant flight west for a Nationals club who suddenly is very much still alive.