|Photo by USA Today|
The Nationals knew at some point they would break their six-game losing streak and finally get a win after the All-Star break. But in their wildest dreams, they probably didn’t picture it would happen like this.
Two manager ejections, three Pirates errors in the first inning, a four-run lead blown in the ninth, the First Lady in attendance, and Bryce Harper’s first career walkoff home run is all it took for the Nats to finally get back into the win column.
Now at 49-53 on the season, the Nationals can’t take too much from what amounts to just one victory, they’re still eight games out of the division lead and have plenty of work to do to catch up. They do acknowledge, however, the feeling of a win is a nice change of pace for the first time in 11 days.
Bench coach Randy Knorr - who replaced Davey Johnson as manager after his ejection in the fifth inning – couldn’t overstate the dramatic turn of emotions in the ninth inning of the Nats’ 9-7 win over the Pirates.
“To tell you how it feels, just walking into the clubhouse right now, you’d think we won the World Series or something,” he said. “But that’s the way the game is right now. And hopefully this carries over for us. I think we’re going to get on a roll here. I think it was a big game for us.”
The Nats entered the ninth inning with a 7-3 lead, only to see it dismantled with Rafael Soriano and then Ian Krol on the mound. Soriano gave up two runs on back-to-back RBI singles before Krol gave up a two RBI hit to Josh Harrison.
Harper then saved the day in the bottom of the ninth with his first walkoff homer and his 14th smash of the season overall. With Kurt Suzuki on first with one out, Harper roped a 1-1 slider from Bryan Morris into center field, clearing the fence by a matter of inches. When he rounded the bases, the Nats’ dugout cleared and waited at home plate for the 20-year-old to make the win official.
Back in the bench and stewing over his performance, Krol said he had a feeling Harper would come through.
“You could feel it,” Krol said. “You could just feel it in the dugout. You know something special's going to happen when you put him in that kind of situation.”
“It was kind of emotional going into the bottom of the ninth, but Harp pulled one out for us. And, you know, that's what he does. That's why we've got him on the team. He's unbelievable.”
Harper’s description of the hit was much more subdued.
“I’m just happy we won the ballgame, I’m serious,” he said. “I could care less about whether it went over the fence or if it was a double off the wall. I don’t really remember any of the play, I kind of do. But I’m just very happy that we won the ballgame and very excited we were able to come through.”
The Nats jumped on top early, scoring four runs in the first inning, which was more than they had recorded in eight of their previous ten games. The Pirates helped Washington’s cause with three errors in the first inning alone and several missed opportunities on offense with runners in scoring position.
Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez didn’t have his best command in the win, but kept getting himself out of jams with Pirates on base. He threw 119 pitches through 5 2/3 innings, allowing eight hits and four walks. Even though he matched a career-high with 11 strikeouts, Gonzalez wasn’t completely pleased with the outing.
“Today was just one of those weird games,” he said. “I had to learn how to go with it and keep them down as much as possible, especially the way they’ve been swinging the bat and their lineup.”
Gonzalez’ big mistake was in the sixth inning when he allowed a two-run homer to Harrison. The Pirates utility man has five homers in his career and two of them have been off Gonzalez.
The Pirates’ homer cut the lead to 4-3, but the Nats would add three insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth. Steve Lombardozzi brought Roger Bernadina home on a one-out single, and Adam LaRoche then scored both Lombardozzi and Harper on a triple to right field.
Knorr brought Soriano in hoping he could close the door, despite not having a save situation. Knorr said afterwards the situation itself may have been what caused trouble for the Nats closer.
“I was watching him pitch, and in the past, I’ve seen him pitch and when it’s not a save opportunity, he doesn’t have the same affect when he’s pitching,” Knorr said.
“He wasn’t throwing the ball over the plate and a couple lefties were coming up. I like the way Krol throws the ball. Figured if you don’t want to be in that mode to shut the game down, I’ll bring somebody else in.”
Krol was called on with one out and men on second and third, having to get up and warmed much quicker than usual. Not used to the circumstance, Krol said his adrenaline was running high and it showed with a pitch that hit the backstop while warming up on the mound.
“I haven't felt nerves like that since my debut,” he said. “It was kind of crazy to be out there in that situation, something that I'm not comfortable with, something that I don't normally do. But you've got to go out there and do your job and get batters out, make good pitches and attack the hitters and fill up the zone.”
The Nats went home with their first win since July 14 and just their second since July 10. They had lost nine of their previous ten and had were 7-21 in the month of July. If this win can be carried over in any sort of way, it will perhaps be the sense of urgency that is upon the Nationals as they continue towards the final two months of the season.
“I'm trying to take these games almost in the sense that they're playoff games,” Ian Desmond said. “We've got to win. We've got to play better, and then we've got to win. We have to finish these games off. It was nice to get a walk-off.”