HOUSTON — Monday night, in response to the team that calls it home, Minute Maid Park brimmed with the energy of a Safeway pet food aisle. Fans dotted seas of empty, green seats, an infant’s wail could be heard over a dull hum and unfinished advertising boards hung above the stands in left field. The Washington Nationals brought a pennant race to a baseball tomb.
In an environment better suited for spring training, or perhaps gardening, the Nationals nearly melted down against the worst team in the league before they escaped with a 5-4, 11-inning victory over the Houston Astros. After closer Tyler Clippard blew a save in the ninth, the Nationals won the game on pure folly, the kind of play that encapsulates how the Astros have sunk to the bottom of the majors.
The Nationals teetered on the brink for all 4 hours and 15 minutes, from stranding runners, to running into outs, to shaky relief appearances. They let a three-run lead slip from their grasp, and allowed the Astros to move the winning run to third with one out in the ninth. But the Nationals finally eked out a win in the 11th. Rather than stew over a demoralizing defeat, the Nationals could forget the details and come back Tuesday.
“We’ll take a win,” said starter Edwin Jackson, who struck out eight over 5 1/3 two-hit innings. “Whether it’s good, bad, ugly, however, a win is a win. An ugly win is a better than a good loss.”
The Nationals sealed it on a play that would infuriate Little League coaches. After the Nationals went four innings against the Astros bullpen without a hit, Roger Bernadina led off the 11th with a single through the right side off Wilton Lopez. Catcher Kurt Suzuki tried to move him to second with a sacrifice bunt, which he popped up to the right side, setting up a comical chain reaction. (Watch video of the play here)
Two Astros, Lopez and first baseman Steve Pearce, crashed into each other trying to pick the ball up. “I said, ‘Oh, baby,’ ” Suzuki said.
Pearce scooped up the ball. As he rushed a throw to first, third baseman Matt Downs, just to punctuate the madness, inexplicably dove over the pile of humanity, hands sprawled. With Downs flying through his line of sight, Pearce fired the ball past second baseman Jose Altuve into right field.
“That moment I saw the ball go to right field, I didn’t think,” Bernadina said. “I just kept going.”
Bernadina sprinted to third, and then ignored third base coach Bo Porter’s instruction to stop. As Bernadina raced home, right fielder Brian Bogusevic sailed his throw over catcher Chris Snyder’s head. Bernadina slid in with the go-ahead run. Suzuki, who had bunted, ended up on third base.
“They gave us one,” Manager Davey Johnson said.
Craig Stammen made do with the one-run cushion, firing a scoreless 11th after Snyder buzzed the left field foul pole. The Astros moved the tying run to second with a walk and a steal, but Stammen retired Altuve with a hard grounder to end it. Stammen’s two scoreless innings sealed a victory that the Nationals’ bullpen had made exceedingly difficult.
Clippard has 22 saves, but only three have come in the situation he inherited Monday night, a one-run lead. He retired the first batter he faced, then gave the Astros a free rally by hitting Carlos Corporan with a curveball and walking Bogusevic.
“Hitting Corporan with the curveball is probably the biggest mistake that I made,” Clippard said.
Against pint-sized Altuve, Clippard tried to bury a two-strike change-up low in the strike zone. But he left the pitch up, and Altuve delivered a pivotal blow, a double off the base of the left field fence. Bogusevic held at third, but the Astros had tied the game and moved the winning run 90 feet away.
“I felt like I threw the ball pretty good,” Clippard said. “It’s just a couple mistakes. That’s the life we live in the bullpen. We got to make our pitches when it counts.”
In a dire spot, Clippard settled himself. He struck out both Marwin Gonzalez – even as he wasted one pitch-out in defense of a squeeze bunt – and Brett Wallace to send the game into extra innings.
“When the game is on the line, if one run scores, it’s over,” Clippard said. “You just got to forget that let the game slip away and lock it back down.”
Even without the blown save, the Nationals have have surely enjoyed less stressful victories this season. They drilled 12 singles off Astros starter Dallas Keuchel in six innings, but turned those hits into only four runs, two of which Ryan Zimmerman drove in with a fifth-inning, bases-loaded single. Tom Gorzelanny let Houston back into the game when he relieved Jackson in the sixth and, in succession, allowed a deep sac fly, a triple and an RBI single to score two runs.
As Johnson gave his rundown of the game, he paused and said, “Enough about this game.”
Drew Storen provided the first true scare in the eighth inning. With two outs and a man on third base, Johnson summoned Storen to face former National Justin Maxwell, Houston’s best right-handed slugger. Prior to the game, Johnson had said he hoped to avoid using Storen. But with Jackson pitching only 5 1/3 innings and Gorzelanny, his long reliever, recording only two outs, Johnson felt pressed into calling on Storen.
“The way Maxwell was swinging, he was having good swings all night long unless we threw him some right-handed breaking balls,” Johnson said. “I didn’t want him to crush one. Storen, I figured I’d just give him the one hitter and go down the road. Sometimes the best-laid plans don’t come to fruition.”
Sunday afternoon, Storen had notched his first save of the season with blistering stuff and precise location. He is still returning from mid-April elbow surgery, still searching for consistency when he bounces back. Monday, he had no feel for the strike zone.
Against Maxwell, Storen did not throw one pitch in the strike zone, and after Maxwell chased two sliders low and away he checked his swing on the 3-2 pitch. Storen kept yanking fastballs and sliders off the outside corner, and Pearce walked to load the bases.
Pitching coach Steve McCatty trudged to the mound for a chat, which did no good. Storen started J.D. Martinez with three straight balls, all of them still low, outside or both. One more ball, and Martinez would force in the winning run.
Storen threw a strike. On the 3-1 pitch, Martinez lined a missile to center field. Bernadina took a couple steps before he snagged the final out of the inning. Storen walked off the mound, the Nationals still ahead. He could not have wobbled more and still stayed on the tightrope.
The stale air in Texas offered far less excitement than the Nationals’ giddy weekend in Washington, when they took three of four from the Miami Marlins. The announced crowd in Houston was 13,843, the lowest in the stadium’s history. But the Nationals need wins here just as badly. They maintained a three-game lead in the National League East over the scorching Atlanta Braves, who drilled the Phillies in Philadelphia.
“We’ve grinded it out when we haven’t had our best stuff as a team,” Clippard said. “We’re out there every day, just knowing we’re going to win. We have that winning mentality right now. No matter if we’re up, down, whatever, any situation that we’re in we feel confident that we’re either going to come back or hold the lead. We feel like we’re going to win every night. It’s a nice feeling.”
In the Astros, the Nationals could see a bleak glimpse of their past selves. The team entered Monday losing at a near-impossible rate, with four wins in the past 34 games. They were on pace to drop 109 games. They have torn their team down, trading away any serviceable major leaguer to replenish their farm system.
Monday night, the Nationals let them hang around. They did everything they could to lose. The Astros just did more.
“It’s a win,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t always have to be pretty.”