Aug 19, 2014, 12:21 AM EDT
It used to cross Adam LaRoche’s mind when he stepped to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning, or later, and realized a home run would win the game for his team. But at some point over the last 11 years, he realized it was doing him no good to worry about it.
Besides, it had to happen eventually, right? Stick around this league long enough, and keep hitting 20-plus homers every season, and one of them was bound to produce a walk-off victory.
“You know, you get to a point where you really stop thinking about it,” he said. “I just felt like I had been snakebit. It seems like any of my ninth-inning homers have come on the road. I just haven’t been able to do it at home.”
Well, LaRoche can now cross that long-awaited event off his bucket list.
With a towering blast off the facade of the second deck in right field late Monday night, the veteran first baseman gave his Nationals yet another dramatic victory in a week full of them. His solo shot off Diamondbacks reliever Will Harris secured a 5-4, 11-inning win, the Nationals’ seventh straight, their third straight in walk-off fashion.
“Took me long enough,” the understated LaRoche said. “It’s a good feeling.”
Everything feels good for the Nationals right now, even if they’ve been forced to bounce back from some soul-crushing meltdowns late to ultimately emerge victorious.
On Sunday, they watched Rafael Soriano give up three runs in the top of the ninth, only to come back and tie the game in the bottom of the inning, then win it in the 11th. On Monday, with Soriano shelved after pitching five of the last six days, they watched Tyler Clippard blow his save opportunity, serving up a top-of-the-ninth homer to David Peralta.
And yet once again, they bounced back from that punch to the gut. Though not before escaping a harrowing jam in the top of the 11th.
Craig Stammen, only 48 hours removed from a 3-inning relief appearance, loaded the bases with nobody out and found himself one lazy fly ball, one slow roller, one wild pitch away from giving up the go-ahead run. Yet somehow the right-hander wriggled his way out of it unscathed, striking out both Jake Lamb and Didi Gregorius before getting Cliff Pennington to ground out.
It was the kind of escape act that helps define a 7-game winning streak.
“It just feels like every break is going our way,” Stammen said. “You don’t get out of a bases-loaded jam very often. That’s a once-in-25-time thing.”
It did leave the Nationals fired up when they returned to the dugout for the bottom of the 11th inning, momentum very much in their possession.
“When I go into games like that, I always tell myself to keep the momentum on my side, try to get it back, get them in the dugout fast,” Stammen said. “I didn’t really do that. But loading the bases and getting out of it, I guess, motivated Adam enough to hit a home run.”
“It’s nothing a pitcher ever wants to get into,” LaRoche said. “But for him to grind back right there … that could’ve easily been a disastrous inning with the bases loaded and nobody out. To fight back and make those pitches to get us back into the dugout, it was big for us.”
It was trumped only by LaRoche’s heroics a few minutes later. At the plate with two out and nobody on, he worked the count to 3-1 against Harris. That situation pretty much always calls for a fastball, but Harris thought he could surprise LaRoche and sneak a curveball over the plate.
“I guess maybe in the back of his head, he thought he might be getting an off-speed pitch, that I’d be pitching around him with a righty on deck,” Harris said.
Truth be told, LaRoche admittedly was surprised by the breaking ball.
“Honestly, the last thing I’m looking for right there is a 3-1 curveball,” he said. “I just happened to see it really good.”
As the ball soared into the night, LaRoche tossed his bat and looked at the Nationals’ dugout, then made a trip around the bases he had waited 11 years to experience.
The 236th home run of his career was the first that featured a throng of teammates waiting for him at the plate, the first that led directly to an on-field interview, the first that was capped by a Gatorade bath.
And if LaRoche has his way, this won’t be his last.
“Hopefully,” he said, “this is the start of a few more.”
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