Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Ivan Rodriguez's two-run homer sparked the Nats' seven-run rally.
And who could have predicted that blast would set in motion one of the most impressive rallies of the season, one that featured seven runs, six hits, eight straight batters reaching base, all with two outs?
"You could kind of feel the momentum shift," Tyler Clippard said. "And then Pudge came up and changed the game completely with one swing. After that, we all jumped on his back and everyone followed suit, which was awesome to see."
It turned into quite the scene, this parade of Nationals batters stepping to the plate, stroking a hit to just about any part of the field and then racing around the bases as the Astros stood there dazed and confused while the announced crowd of 11,893 went bananas.
There would still be some intrigue before the Nats' 8-4 victory was complete -- more on that in a bit -- but at night's end, this was as satisfying a ballgame as we've seen around here in a while.
Yeah, it was just one mostly meaningless, late-September win. But it was also this club's 63rd win, making another 100-loss season impossible. That may not be a milestone worth celebrating, but it's not totally insignificant either.
"I had no clue, but that's huge," said John Lannan, whose six scoreless innings after surrendering three runs in the first was just as significant to this victory as the eventual rally.
But about that rally. At the time Rodriguez stepped to the plate, the Nationals had amassed all of five hits off Houston pitching. With two outs, a man on first and the not-so-hot Pudge at bat, there seemed little reason to believe an outburst was imminent. And when reliever Felipe Paulino got ahead in the count 0-2, there really seemed no reason to believe.
"In that situation, when I get to 0-2, I just try to stay back and try to see the ball," Rodriguez said. "Paulino, everybody knows he throws hard and you have to be ready with him. Fortunately, he just left me a hanging curveball right over the plate and I made a good swing on it."
Did he ever. The ball sailed down the left-field line and clanked off the pole a good two-thirds of the way up. None of Pudge's three previous homers this season were struck like that, not with that kind of oomph.
So a game the Nationals had trailed since about 7:07 p.m. was now tied, and they weren't done. The inning just kept going and going. Single. Stolen base. Walk. RBI single. Run-scoring wild pitch. Walk. RBI single. RBI single. RBI single.
"It's fun when the offense rolls together like that, everybody contributing," said Adam Kennedy, one of the key contributors. "Fun game tonight."
It was not completely over, though, not even with the Nationals holding what surely felt like a comfortable 8-3 lead entering the ninth. Drew Storen had been warming throughout the bottom of the eighth when it appeared he be needed for a save situation, but the rally happened so quickly, there wasn't time to get anyone else up.
So Storen entered with a five-run lead and went to work. No problem, right? Well, not exactly.
Storen got off to a good start, striking out Jason Michaels. He then left a pitch over the plate to Chris Johnson and watched the ball sail into the Red Porch. Still, the Nationals led by four runs, and when Tommy Manzella grounded to first, Storen was one out from wrapping this one up.
But then he walked Jason Castro (who just happened to be his catcher at Stanford), and the next thing you knew, Jim Riggleman was strolling to the mound, asking for the ball and summoning Sean Burnett from the bullpen to face Geoff Blum. With his team leading by four runs, with one on and two out in the ninth.
The manager's explanation for pulling his young closer there?
"Like I've said, we don't have any specific role for anybody. We're just trying to get outs," Riggleman said. "I felt like the best way to get that next out was to bring Burnett in. Did I think Drew would get the next out? Yeah. But I was a little more confident that Burnie coming in there fresh to face a guy off the bench -- turn him around right-handed -- was a little more to our liking."
In other words: Riggleman felt he had to do whatever he could to win that game right there. Which would be fine if the Nationals were in the thick of a pennant race. Or if this took place back in May or June.
But on September 21, with the Nats 27 1/2 games out of first place and trying to determine whether Storen has what it takes to close in the big leagues two days after blowing a save in spectacular fashion? Isn't that precisely the situation you'd want to leave the 23-year-old in and find out what he's made of?
It's perhaps a minor point at the end of an otherwise enjoyable night at the ballpark. But in the bigger picture, what was more important: Locking down Game 151 or getting a clearer view of Storen's ability?
For Riggleman, victory No. 63 was first and foremost. And considering the upbeat atmosphere inside the clubhouse and in the stands at the end of the night, that's understandable.
Those who prefer the long-term view to the short-term one, though, probably disagree.