First-inning success continues even without Harper (Nats win in 16)

No Bryce Harper? No problem for the Nationals, who continue to produce in the first inning even without their MVP slugger.

Matt den Dekker, subbing in right field to give Harper his first day off this season, opened the bottom of the first this afternoon with a homer into the right field bullpen, giving the Nationals a quick lead on the Twins.

den Dekker, who hammered a 3-1 fastball from rookie right-hander Tyler Duffey, became merely the latest member of the Nationals lineup to make a dent into opposing pitchers right out of the chute.

den-dekker-at-bat-white-sidebar.jpgThe Nationals now have scored 25 first-inning runs in 18 games this season, more than any other team in baseball.

And Harper is only partially responsible for that. The young slugger has driven in only four of those runs, though he has scored seven of them.

den Dekker’s blast got the Nationals off on the right foot this afternoon, and they appeared ready to break things open when they followed up the homer with Michael A. Taylor’s walk, Daniel Murphy’s sharp single up the middle and Ryan Zimmerman’s scorched liner to left (though it was hit right to the Twins’ Eddie Rosario).

They couldn’t add on after that, though, giving Stephen Strasburg little cushion on the mound. Strasburg’s afternoon began in impressive fashion - he retired six of the first seven batters he faced, three via strikeout - but the Twins got to him for a run in the top of the third on Byron Buxton’s leadoff double and Eduardo Nunez’s RBI single to left.

Update: Strasburg continues to cruise. He’s through five innings of one-run ball, having struck out seven without walking anybody. His pitch count is a very manageable 61 (45 strikes).

The Nats, meanwhile, continue to have chances to blow this game open, but they’re now 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position, including 0-for-3 in a bottom of the fifth that included a pitching change for the Twins. Duffey was struck in the right shoulder by den Dekker’s comebacker and had to be replaced by Casey Fein. The Twins say Duffey suffered a right arm contusion and was removed for precautionary reasons.

So after all that, it remains a 1-1 game heading to the sixth.

Update II: And it’s still 1-1 heading to the eighth, because the Nats simply can’t drive another run in despite countless opportunities. They’re now 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position after Murphy flied out to left and Zimmerman struck out on three pitches with two on in the bottom of the seventh.

Fortunately, Strasburg continues to dominate. He’s through seven innings of one-run ball, striking out nine with zero walks and a pitch count of only 90. So he’s back to the mound for the top of the eighth in this nip-and-tuck ballgame.

Update III: The domination from Strasburg came to an end in the top of the eighth. After allowing back-to-back, one-out singles to Joe Mauer and Eduardo Nunez, he battled through an eight-pitch at-bat with Brian Dozier. The last of those pitches, Strasburg’s 114th of the afternoon, was a 95-mph fastball over the heart of the plate, and it wound up in the left field bleachers. Just like that, a dominant start ended on a very sour note, with the Nationals suddenly trailing 4-1 and down to their final six outs.

Update IV: The Nats came oh-so-close to tying the game in the bottom of the eighth. They got a single from Anthony Rendon, a double off the wall from Jayson Werth and a two-run double from Wilson Ramos on an 0-2 curveball. But they just couldn’t push across the tying run. Stephen Drew was robbed on a line drive that Dozier snagged at second base. Clint Robinson (pinch-hitting) struck out on a 2-2 fastball, after Danny Espinosa (pinch-running for Ramos) took third on a ball in the dirt. And den Dekker lined out to right to end the inning. Noticeably absent through it all was Bryce Harper, but there really was no proper situation to send him up there, because first base was open each time. The Twins simply would’ve walked him. We’ll see if he gets a shot in the bottom of the ninth, with the Nats now trailing 4-3.

Update V: Sweet Fancy Moses, he did it. Bryce Harper, pinch-hitting for Michael A. Taylor to begin the bottom of the ninth, battled through a seven-pitch at-bat vs. Kevin Jepsen, all of them fastballs. And then on the seventh pitch, he homered to center field. Seriously. What a moment. Harper’s ninth in 18 games has tied this game, 4-4, and sent it to extra innings.

Update VI: The Nats had a great opportunity to win it in the 10th, after a bizarre sequence that included Joe Ross pinch-hitting and driving a single up the middle. That put two on with one out, but Jose Lobaton grounded into a 6-4-3 double play, so now we’re going to the 11th inning in what remains a 4-4 game.

Update VII: We go to the 12th after both Yusmeiro Petit and Fernando Abad struck out the side in the 11th.

Update VIII: We go the 15th. Yeah, seriously. This is turning ridiculous.

Update IX: Sweet Fancy Moses, this is the craziest game you’ll ever see. Down 5-4 with two outs in the bottom of the 15th, the Nats came back to tie it thanks to a great bunt by Oliver Perez (yes, Oliver Perez) that was thrown away by catcher John Ryan Murphy, bringing Danny Espinosa home with the game-tying run. This came after Paul Molitor made a pitching change with OLIVER PEREZ stepping to the plate. That pitcher, Michael Tonkin, then proceeded to plunk Jose Lobaton, before rebounding to get Matt den Dekker to fly out to left and send this game to the 16th inning. I have no more words for this.

Update X: It’s over, it’s all over. Chris Heisey has won this most ridiculous of baseball games with a walk-off homer to lead off the bottom of the 16th inning. Nats win 6-5. Just remarkable.

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