Nationals avoid ninth-inning disaster, escape with 4-2 victory

SAN FRANCISCO - Tanner Roark gave them the seven strong innings they needed from their starter. The lineup delivered a quick burst of two-out hits off Johnny Cueto that put the Nationals in position to lead nearly the entire night.

But no victory is compete until the ninth inning is complete. And anyone who has followed the Nationals recently knows just how difficult it has been to complete that ninth inning with a lead intact.

The Nationals did manage to do it tonight and pull off a 4-2 victory over the Giants, but it took far more than manager Dusty Baker wanted it to take. It took Jonathan Papelbon getting yanked three batters (two of whom reached base) into the frame. It took Oliver Perez retiring one of the three batters he faced. It took a near-disastrous error on what could have been a game-ending double play.

And in the end, it took Shawn Kelley entering from the bullpen with the bases loaded and striking out Angel Pagan to finish this one off and allow his team to walk off the field with at least some of its dignity still intact.

“We had to do what we had to do to win the ballgame,” Baker said after an exasperating, 3-hour, 28-minute game.

And right now, that means trusting someone other than Papelbon to record the final out.

Kelley-Throws-Red-Sidebar.jpgThe veteran closer had already been charged with losses in each of his last two appearances, including a blown save Tuesday night in Cleveland. He was given Wednesday off to recover after pitching four of the previous five days. But when the Nationals took a three-run lead into the ninth tonight at AT&T Park, Baker didn’t hesitate to give him the ball.

At that moment, the Nationals had a 97.4 percent chance of winning the game, according to FanGraphs.com. But it very quickly became clear the odds were not nearly that good with Papelbon on the mound. Though he retired Brandon Crawford to begin the ninth, his first two fastballs registered 88 mph on the stadium radar gun, down from the low-to-mid 90s he displayed only a few weeks ago after coming off the disabled list.

Brandon Belt then singled, and Papelbon followed by walking Mac Williamson, bringing the tying run to the plate with one out. Baker decided right there he had seen enough. He walked to the mound, took the ball from Papelbon’s hand and summoned Perez to replace him.

“I’m sure he felt badly, but I had to do what I had to do to win the ballgame,” the manager said, adding: “I’m sure Pap didn’t like it, but I’m sure he understands.”

Did Papelbon, ninth on the major league all-time list with 368 saves, understand?

“The object is to win the game,” he said softly at his locker, head down. “Do what you can to win the game.”

Baker said it was too soon to make any decisions about a plan moving forward with Papelbon but admitted “we’ve certainly got to figure something out here.”

The solution tonight was to ask Perez and then Kelley to close out the game. Perez did issue a walk to the first batter he faced, loading the bases, but then he induced what might have been a double-play grounder to end the game, only to watch as third baseman Anthony Rendon threw to second base from his knees, with shortstop Danny Espinosa surprisingly covering but unable to corral the ball and get his foot on the bag.

Why was Espinosa covering instead of second baseman Daniel Murphy, who normally would do it on any ground ball hit to the left side?

“Murph and I talked about it and felt he was going to be playing too far over,” Espinosa said. “I kind of wasn’t close enough to the base. ... When he hit that ball, I took a step to my right, and it got me way late, kind of scrambling to the base. It’s one of those plays. It’s nothing you really work on. It’s just something you hope you react to and that you can get. It just didn’t work that time.”

The lead now down to two runs, Baker left Perez in to face Denard Span, a move that paid off when the left-hander struck out the Nationals’ former leadoff man. But then it was Kelley who was asked to face Pagan, turning the switch-hitter around to the left side.

“I just was told to be ready. So I got loose,” said Kelley, who also warmed up at one point in the eighth inning. “I had plenty of time to get loose. Basically just sitting down there waiting to see if Dusty pokes his head out of the dugout. And when he did, I knew it was my turn. It’s really all I can do: Be ready.”

Kelley came through, getting Pagan to whiff at a 94 mph fastball to secure a victory that featured plenty of positive developments before the chaotic bottom of the ninth.

The Nationals took down Cueto in impressive fashion, forcing the ace right-hander to throw 101 pitches in only five innings and making him pay thanks to a string of quality two-out at-bats in the top of the second. Ryan Zimmerman, Espinosa, Roark and Trea Turner all singled in succession, the latter three all driving in runs in the process.

“That’s big, because usually you don’t see that many hits anymore,” Baker said. “And you don’t see that many hits off Cueto.”

If not for the uniquely spacious dimensions in right-center field at AT&T Park, Murphy might have put the final nail in Cueto’s coffin and made it a seven-run explosion. Alas, what would have been a grand slam in most ballparks was merely a loud out here, thanks to Span’s spectacular catch as the former Nationals center fielder crashed into the wall to end the second inning.

The Nats actually had plenty of chances to expand their lead by a healthy amount, but Bryce Harper’s two-out RBI double in the sixth accounted for their only other run of the game.

In the hands of a lesser starter, those four runs of support might have been inadequate. But Roark is no lesser starter, as he continues to prove just about every time he takes the mound.

With little fanfare but a whole lot of quality pitches, the right-hander kept the Giants from stringing together any rallies. Even the one run he allowed (in the bottom of the second) had to be viewed as a positive because it scored on a groundout during a fizzled rally that began with the bases loaded and nobody out.

Roark departed after striking out pinch-hitter Ramiro Pena in the bottom of the seventh, his 111th pitch of the night. That ensured his eighth start this season of at least seven innings with one or fewer earned runs. Only the Cubs’ Jon Lester, with nine, has done that more times among all major league starters in 2016.

“Just being aggressive,” Roark said to explain his consistent success. “Keep the hitter uncomfortable each and every time. Keep pumping strikes and going after them.”

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