SAN FRANCISCO - As the ball got past Pablo Sandoval’s outstretched glove hand and trickled down the left field line, multiple Nationals knew that moment could be it.
It could be the momentum-shifter, the play that they had been looking for.
“I mentioned it yesterday, that we just need one break,” reliever Drew Storen said. “It’s been a tough couple games here to start. And we got our break.”
Prior to starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner’s errant throw to third on Wilson Ramos’ nicely-executed, two-strike bunt in the seventh inning, the Nats had been searching for something to change, something to snap them out of their rough start to the National League Division Series.
They had fallen behind two games to none in the best-of-five series. They had gone 21 straight innings without scoring a run. They had struggled to square up many pitches from Giants starters. They had admittedly been pressing offensively, trying to make something happen.
But when Ramos was able to lay down the bunt with two on, nobody out in the seventh, and a 1-2 count on him, things finally turned the Nats’ way. Bumgarner charged the ball, and instead of throwing to first for the easy out, he tried to cut down lead runner Ian Desmond at third.
The throw was late and wide of the mark. It went past Sandoval, and past left fielder Travis Ishikawa. Desmond hopped to his feet and scored easily. Bryce Harper came all the way around to score from first. A batter later, Ramos scored from second on Asdrubal Cabrera’s single to left, just ahead of Ishikawa’s throw to the plate.
A scoreless game turned into a 3-0 Nats lead in what felt like an instant. And in the visitors’ dugout, a feeling of confidence swept over the players.
“We got the break we’ve kind of been looking for a few days now,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “Bumgarner’s throwing great, same dominating stuff he always does. And then threw a ball away and gave us a chance to push a few across. This is big.”
Ramos had only put down four sacrifice bunts in his career. His most recent one had been back in 2011.
He squared on the first pitch of that seventh-inning at-bat, and took a strike. After taking a ball, he squared again on the 1-1 pitch and again took a strike. With two strikes on the Nats catcher, manager Matt Williams and third base coach Bob Henley left the bunt sign on. They trusted Ramos, who was 1-for-12 in the series going into that at-bat, to get down the sacrifice.
And they were rewarded for their confidence.
“Bobby never wipe off the sign,” Ramos said afterward. “So in that moment, with two strikes, I say, ‘Willy, you have to do it.’ I’m glad I did it well. I have to play for the team. I know I’m not hitting well right now, but I have to play good behind the plate and try and execute those little plays.”
Tyler Clippard worked a scoreless eighth, the Nats padded their lead with Bryce Harper’s bomb of a homer in the eighth and, while Drew Storen allowed a run in the ninth, he shut the door to close out a 4-1 win.
The game turned on the Ramos bunt and the Bumgarner error. The catcher who never bunts got down a successful one that changed the game. The team that never makes major miscues in the postseason made a large one in a big moment.
And now the Nats have life, one more win away from flying back to D.C. and hosting a decisive Game 5.
“He hasn’t had to do that all year,” Clippard said of the Ramos bunt. “Especially with two strikes, him getting it down. Obviously, the error was huge for us, too. But just the fact that he stepped up and did that for the team. He knew the importance of getting that bunt down and the momentum shifted, and we felt it.”