Apr 24, 2014, 9:00 AM EDT
The Nationals have produced enough late rallies already this season — they’ve got seven come-from-behind victories in 22 games — that they don’t ever feel a sense of panic, or feel like all hope is lost. But last night’s bottom-of-the-ninth drama was particularly out-of-the-blue given the situation.
Trailing 4-1 and showing little sign of life at the end of a long, cold night at the ballpark, the Nationals somehow turned what looked like a certain demoralizing loss and a series sweep at the hands of the Angels into their most-dramatic win to date.
What remained of a crowd of 22,504 jumped for joy in the empty aisles at Nationals Park. The guys in the center of the diamond celebrated, mobbing Adam LaRoche following his game-winning hit. But nobody in the clubhouse afterward suggested they ever expected anything else from a club that is making a habit out of this stuff.
“I’ve played on teams where it’s just a feeling,” said Jayson Werth, who tied the game with a 2-run double and then scored the winning run on LaRoche’s single. “You can’t really explain it, but there’s confidence there. You don’t ever feel out. I feel it on this team for sure.”
How did this latest rally happen? Let’s deconstruct it, at-bat by at-bat…
1. Jose Lobaton homers
The Nationals’ No. 2 catcher, pressed into everyday services since Wilson Ramos broke a bone in his left hand on Opening Day, got off to a rough start but has been swinging a better bat in the last week. He fell behind in the count 0-2 leading off the ninth last night, taking two strikes from Ernesto Frieri, but then he pounced on the Angels closer’s 0-2 pitch and hammered a line-drive homer down the right-field line.
“I feel like the Lobaton at-bat was the spark we needed,” Werth said. “It seemed like we were just … the last few days really, we can’t get it going. We had our chances. That was the hit we needed.”
2. Denard Span singles
After pinch-hitter Zach Walters struck out, Span stepped to the plate recognizing the need to get on base and allow the tying run to get to the plate. He, too, took a couple of strikes from Frieri and fell behind in the count, 1-2, but then lashed a single up the middle to help set up the winning rally.
3. Anthony Rendon walks
Few young hitters have the batting eye and advanced approach that Rendon displays, and he put it all together in this key at-bat. He took two strikes from Frieri, putting himself in a quick 0-2 hole, then did a nice job not expanding the zone despite his predicament. Rendon took a fastball low, fouled off a tough pitch on the outside corner, took two more balls that were well out of the zone and then took a 3-2 fastball just outside to draw the walk that kept the rally going and brought Werth to the plate now representing the winning run.
4. Jayson Werth doubles
Unlike the previous batters, Frieri immediately fell behind in the count. He fired three straight balls to Werth, who now found himself in an interesting situation: With the count 3-0 against a fast-fading pitcher, would he take the next pitch no matter what or take his chances if he saw something he liked?
Matt Williams gave him the green light. “I trust him that if he’s going to miss on a swing, it’s going to be hit hard to his pull side,” the manager said. “And if it’s not a pitch he can do it with, he’s not going to swing at it. He’s a veteran player. I trust the fact he’s done it a couple times this year: one was a homer, one was a double. He’s comfortable with it. He knows what pitch to pick and how to go about doing it.”
Werth indeed has been an effective hitter in that situation. In fact, since joining the Nationals in 2011, he has put a 3-0 pitch into play nine times. His stats on those swings: 7-for-9 with a double, two homers and nine RBI.
“Some guys are comfortable swinging 3-0, some guys aren’t,” he said. “Sometimes even if you feel comfortable swinging 3-0, you don’t really feel it. But I felt it and I went for it.”
Remembering former Phillies manager Charlie Manuel’s mantra for swings on 3-0 — “Aim for the foul pole” — Werth did just that. He didn’t get the ball up in the air, but he drilled a rocket of a grounder past a diving David Freese at third base, down the line. It caromed to the side, and by the time left fielder J.B. Shuck could retrieve the ball, both Span and Rendon had scored to tie the game.
“It was one of those situations where you hit into a double play right there, it’s probably the worst play you’ve ever seen,” Werth said. “If you get a hit, it’s the best. I’m glad it worked out, that’s for sure.”
5. Adam LaRoche singles
With Frieri clearly ineffective, Angels manager Mike Scioscia pulled his closer and summoned fellow right-hander Fernando Salas to face LaRoche. The veteran slugger had faced Salas four times before, though he had yet to produce a hit off him. But LaRoche knew Salas’ repertoire, so he didn’t think he’d be fooled by anything.
“In that situation, just trying to hit something hard,” he said. “I know he’s got a good changeup, so I can’t really sell out on the fastball. Tried to put a good swing on something.”
Salas’ first-pitch fastball was up and out over the plate. LaRoche, a pull hitter through most of his career, has been effective so far this season at taking those pitches the other way. And sure enough, he stayed on this one to perfection, lining the ball over the shortstop’s head and into left-center field for the game-winner.
“We’ve seen that from Adam all year: the ability to hit the ball over the shortstop’s head,” Williams said. “That’s the key for him to have success and driving runs in.”
Just like that, the Nationals turned what surely looked like a difficult loss at the end of a frustrating series into their most-uplifting win of the year.
“Last night we’re sitting here talking about how bad we are, tonight it’s a different story,” Werth said. “Crazy game.”
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