The Nationals completed the biggest ninth-inning comeback since baseball returned Tuesday night, but it could not have happened without two relievers who have spent most of this season in Class AAA Syracuse.
Ryan Mattheus jogged into the game* with no outs and a man on first in the fifth inning. He retired six straight batters, striking out one. Collin Balester pitched the seventh and eighth, allowing two hits, both singles, and no walks.
*Mattheus has chosen Katy Perry’s “Firework” as his warm-up music. Earlier this year in Class AA Harrisburg, Mattheus heard the song come on the radio with pitcher Cory VanAllen. “We were like, ‘This is a good song,’ ” Mattheus said the other day. “It made me want to fist-pump.”
Before Mattheus and Balester took the mound, the Mariners had pounded Livan Hernandez and scored one run in four out of five innings. Their four scoreless innings stymied the Mariners and made the Nationals believe they might be able to mount a comeback.
“They kept us within reach,” second baseman Danny Espinosa said. “They gave us that opportunity. It keeps the team rolling – ‘Hey, we still got a shot.’ ”
Todd Coffey added a fifth scoreless relief inning in the ninth, and then the Nationals, of course, scored five in the bottom of the inning to win. It was Balester and Mattheus who really made it possible. Both of them could have just cruised through the motions in a game that seemed lost. Having spent most of this year and their careers in the minors, they both came out focused.
“Every time I get out on the mound, I’m trying to hold them no matter what the score is,” Balester said. “That’s my mentality. It’s a lot better to do it up here than it is down there.”
Said Mattheus: “It’s definitely easy to stay focused when you’re up here at this level. You have to stay focused, or else they’ll get to you. I know that’s my role. I just look at it as, ‘I got to come here, and I got to keep this game close. I got to give us any chance we can to win.’ ”
Mattheus has been doing that. He’s made three appearances, and in 4 1/3 innings he’s allowed no runs on one hit and one walk.
>>> Jayson Werth made what seemed to be an uncharacteristically careless error in the fifth inning, when he barehanded a flare to right by Brendan Ryan. When Werth bobbled the ball, Ryan alertly scooted to second base. Werth, though, had a rationale for the odd-looking play. He was just hesitant to share it. “I’ll tell you on Thursday,” he said with a smirk.
Whatever the cause, it was Werth’s fifth error this season, which is second most in the National League.
>>> Livan Hernandez chased his three-hit shutout with a rocky start, allowing five runs, four earned, on 10 hits in four-plus innings. It was his shortest outing since September 2009. But it could have been worse if not for a savvy play.
In the first inning, four of the first five Mariners hitters singled off Hernandez. With one out and runners on the corners, Carlos Peguero popped to foul territory down the left field line. Ryan Zimmerman sprinted toward the seats to catch the ball. As he did, Justin Smoak, on third, stood on third and tagged up.
Hernandez could tell Smoak was going to deke as if running home. He also knew the third base coach was watching the fly ball, and would not notice if he snuck off the mound and over to third base.
“I got to try to do something,” Hernandez said. “When you don’t got your best stuff, you got to do some extra things.”
When Smoak took just a few steps off the base, Zimmerman saw Hernandez bolting toward the base. Zimmerman made a quick, excellent throw, new mechanics and all. “He’s a good athlete,” Hernandez said. “That play is heads up. He threw a bullet.”
Hernandez caught the ball just as reached the base and made a swipe tag as he stepped on third base. It wasn’t clear if third base umpire Ron Kulpa ruled Smoak had not tagged up and Hernandez got him out by stepping on the base, or if Smoak was off the base and Hernandez retired him with the tag. Either way, the play worked.
It could not save Hernandez’s night, though. He blamed his struggles on a cutter he did not throw properly – he said he was throwing it too much overhand, and not with more of a side arm angle.
>>> Hernandez’s 10-hit start continued a recent mini-trend. In the past four games, opponents have blooped, poked and ripped 40 hits against Nationals starting pitchers. Before last Friday, Nationals starters have held batters to a .260 batting average. In the last four games since, their batting average against is .430.
Of those 40 hits, just two have homers; Nationals starters have been the victim of a .452 batting average on balls in play the past four games. The large number of hits does not really signify anything, but it is noteworthy that the Nationals have been able to win three of those four games, anyway.
FROM THE POST
The Nationals overcame a four-run ninth-inning deficit in a 6-5 walk-off victory over the Mariners, finalizing their comeback with Wilson Ramos’s three-run homer.
Dave Sheinin reports from Bryce Harper’s day at the South Atlantic League all-star game, where he found Bryce Harper Lite instead.
Steinberg captures the celebration with MASN screenshots, and it’s outstanding.
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Gwinnett 7, Syracuse 1: Stephen Lombardozzi went 1 for 4 with a double in his Class AAA debut. J.D. Martin allowed two runs in six innings on two hits, two walks and five strikeouts.
Richmond 4, Harrisburg 2: Derek Norris went 1 for 3 with a home run and a walk. Bill Rhinehart went 2 for 3 with a double and a walk.
Auburn 9, State College 0: Hendry Jimenez went 3 for 4 with a walk. Connor Rowe went 2 for 4 with two doubles and a walk. Manny Rodriguez pitched two scorless relief innings on one hit and a walk, striking out three. Colin Bates allowed no runs in five innings on one hit and no walks, striking out four.