Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Willie Harris gets mobbed by teammates after his game-winning single.
"When they tied the game up, it's like you get that feeling in your stomach," Harris said. "Like: Damn, man. This guy just went out and did so well and he's going to
get a no-decision."
Thanks to Harris, Olsen's brilliant performance did not go to waste. With one deft swing of the bat with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, he lined a single past Braves second baseman Martin Prado and gave the Nationals a thoroughly satisfying 3-2 victory.
This was the kind of game the Nats simply had to win. You don't squander a pitching performance like Olsen's, even though they almost did. When Tyler Clippard entered with the bases loaded in the eighth and served up a two-run single to Jason Heyward, the life was sucked out of Nationals Park. A crowd of 17,131 thought it was about to witness history. Instead, all it got was another tense ballgame.
But give the Nats credit for finishing this one off and ending the night on a high note. Clippard played a big role in that, bouncing back from the two-run single to get a double-play grounder to end the eighth and then another double-play grounder with the bases loaded to end the ninth.
That set the stage for a walk-off victory, which the Nationals wasted no time producing. Adam Kennedy led off the ninth by drawing a walk. Ryan Zimmerman then roped a double to deep right off Peter Moylan (the same Atlanta reliever who gave up Zim's walk-off homer in the first game at Nationals Park two years ago).
Under normal circumstances, Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham would have been due up next. But because Jim Riggleman subbed out both players for defensive purposes earlier, he was left with Alberto Gonzalez in the on-deck circle and Clippard in the hole. Not exactly Murderer's Row.
So Riggleman knew he needed to use his two best remaining bullets off the bench: Harris and Cristian Guzman. But in what order? With first base open, Braves manager Bobby Cox was certain to call for an intentional walk and set up a force at any base.
Because Cox was going with the right-handed Moylan, Riggleman elected to put the game in Harris' hands.
"It was almost a flip of the coin," the manager said. "I knew whoever I put up there was going to get walked. So I was going to put it on one of them, and I decided to put it on Willie."
After sitting cold on the bench most of the night, Harris had moved to the batting tunnel underneath the stands, alternating practice hacks with Wil Nieves.
"We always play this game where you just hit balls up the middle to the back of the cage," Harris said. "Tonight, fresh out of the cage, playing the game, up the middle, I go in the game and hit one up the middle. I told Wil, 'We've got to play this game every day!'"
If it leads to results like tonight's, every Nats player not in the lineup might crowd his way into the tunnel during every remaining game this season.