Nats welcome Baker back to dugout with dramatic victory

ATLANTA - Dusty Baker has lined up along the baseline for opening day intros in a major league ballpark 42 times in his life, 20 times as manager. This is as routine as it gets for the career baseball man.

But when Baker trotted out from the third base dugout at Turner Field this afternoon for the first time as Nationals manager, he did so after two years away from the sport. There was an element of newness for the 66-year-old.

Not to mention several moments where Baker's blood pressure readings couldn't have been particularly healthy.

In the end, the Nationals were victorious in their new skipper's debut, overcoming an eighth-inning bullpen meltdown by scoring in both the ninth and 10th innings to beat the Braves 4-3 and reward Baker for his return to the sport he loves.

As he put it afterwards: "It's kind of like the game telling me: 'Welcome back.' "

Positive result notwithstanding, Baker better hope all 162 games this season don't resemble this one. This was far from a masterpiece, with poor relief pitching, poor defense and poor situational hitting defining much of the game.

And yet, when it mattered most, the Nationals executed as necessary, making the right plays at the right time to emerge with the kind of win good teams need to produce.

harper-henley-low-five-gray-sidebar.jpg"You can't win 'em all unless you win the first one," said Bryce Harper, who homered in his first at-bat of the season, walked twice, stole a base and then conducted his postgame interview wearing a Donald Trump-style cap that read: "Make Baseball Fun Again."

The Nationals indeed are undefeated, for now, and they can make that claim because the manner in which they composed themselves after seeing a winnable game start to slip through their clutches in a fashion that felt far too familiar to anyone who suffered through last season's 83-79 campaign.

When they took the field for the bottom of the eighth inning, they found themselves knotted in a 2-2 ballgame, all four runs having scored via solo homers (Harper and Daniel Murphy for the Nationals, Freddie Freeman and Adonis Garcia for the Braves). There were several opportunities to take the lead, but the Nats to that point were 0-for-4 with runners in scoring position.

"We left a lot of men on base," said Baker, whose team struck out 11 times overall. "We could've broken that game open a couple times. But we kept fighting and fighting."

First, though, they handed Atlanta a 3-2 lead via some shaky relief pitching.

Felipe Rivero, one of the bright spots to emerge from the Nationals bullpen last season, loaded the bases in the bottom of the eighth by walking the usually-unwalkable Jeff Francoeur, allowing a single to Ender Inciarte and then plunking Freeman with a 3-2 fastball during a strange at-bat that was supposed to be a pitch-around of the Braves slugger but wound up highly competitive.

Not wanting to leave the young left-hander in to face Garcia with the bases loaded and two outs, Baker summoned veteran Shawn Kelley from his bullpen. The rationale: Over the last three years, Kelley had allowed only 20 percent of inherited runners to score.

"That's the lowest on our team, and that's why we brought him in there for that situation," Baker said. "But sometimes, as you see, the stats don't follow suit."

Not when you can't come close to finding the plate. Kelley walked Garcia on four pitches, each of them well below the strike zone, the final one skipping to the backstop as the go-ahead run scored and the crowd of 48,282 at Turner Field roared.

Thus ended the first of what the Nationals expect to be a whole lot of appearances for Kelley, for whom they gave a three-year, $15 million contract over the winter. In came Oliver Perez, who managed to strike out Nick Markakis and at least give his teammates a reasonable shot at rallying in the ninth.

Which is exactly what they did. Facing 39-year-old closer Jason Grilli, making his first big league appearance since he tore his Achilles' tendon on July 11, the Nationals clawed their way back. Jayson Werth drew a four-pitch walk. Wilson Ramos scooted a single through a wide-open right side of the infield. Danny Espinosa then failed to get two bunt attempts down toward third base before somehow getting the third one down toward first base in a fashion that made it look like he was wielding a lob wedge instead of a Louisville Slugger.

"I had just seen something while I was up there and I thought: 'I can get this up the first base line,' " said Espinosa, who actually wound up beating out the bunt for a single. "That was just kind of my thought process. I saw something when I was stepping in the box and wanted to go that way."

The bases now loaded with one out, Michael A. Taylor (who earlier replaced an injured Ben Revere in center field and atop the lineup card) lofted a fly ball to shallow center field. It was hit to a spot in the outfield that typically would keep third base coaches from sending a runner home. Bob Henley, though, has never shied away from taking a shot, and so Werth took off for the plate as Inciarte wound up to throw home.

"I don't even know what Henley said," Werth joked. "We talked about being aggressive when Mikey went up there. So I think it was more on me. I think he caught in on his heels. That was the read I had. I've been an aggressive baserunner my whole career. That was the situation, more than anything else."

Inciarte's throw easily beat Werth to the plate, but he slid directly into A.J. Pierzynski's mitt, and the veteran catcher couldn't hold onto the ball. Werth emerged a bit gimpy from the collision, but he also emerged elated that a play that could have ended the game instead extended it.

"He had the plate blocked pretty good," he said. "I had to get in there."

Dusty-Baker-spring-sidebar.jpg"At some point, especially on the road, you've got to take a chance," Baker said, wholeheartedly agreeing with the decision to send Werth. "Sometimes you're going to get caught. Inciarte make a heck of a throw. And then Jayson made a heck of a slide. They talk about a game of inches, that was definitely it."

After Blake Treinen kept the Braves from scoring in the bottom of the ninth - with an assist from Espinosa, who turned a nifty double play while shifted straight up the middle on Pierzynski, the Nationals came up to bat in the 10th with a chance to take the lead for good.

They did so thanks first to Atlanta second baseman Gordon Beckham, whose throw to first on Ryan Zimmerman's grounder up the middle sailed egregiously wide of the bag, landing Zimmerman on second with one out. Murphy then delivered exactly the kind of clutch hit the Nationals gave him $37.5 million this winter to deliver for them over the next three years.

Facing veteran left-hander Eric O'Flaherty, Murphy poked a 3-1 pitch the other way, depositing it down the left field line and bringing Zimmerman home with the eventual winning run.

"I was just trying to look for something out over the plate," Murphy said. "Fortunately, I got one over the middle of the plate. I didn't hammer it, by any stretch of the imagination, but it found outfield grass."

Now holding the lead, Baker handed the ball to Jonathan Papelbon, who knew he needed to retire the side in the bottom of the 10th or else tempt fate with the fearsome Freeman due up fourth in the inning. Papelbon acquiesced, recording three quick outs to seal the victory, then presenting Baker the game ball from his first victory as Nationals manager.

Now Baker just hopes they don't all come with such drama.

"There were a lot of highs and lows in that game," he sighed. "Boy, that was some ballgame."

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