Then, 13 innings of exhausting baseball happened. The Nationals took a first-inning lead — which they blew by the fifth — and then didn’t score again until a curious play ended it. Danny Espinosa, already on third base because of alert base running, broke home on a groundball by Chad Tracy that ate up Braves second baseman Dan Uggla, who was also frozen by runner Kurt Suzuki at first base. The Nationals won, 5-4, their ninth walk-off win of the season.
With the victory, Washington moved six games ahead of Atlanta and 30 games over .500 for the first time this season.
A mercilessly long game in which nearly everyone played had finally come to an end. Balls that could have ended the game landed inches from the fence and into fielders’ gloves for outs. Twenty-six runners were stranded on base. One reliever was left for either team. Starter Edwin Jackson, who tossed 103 pitches on Saturday and was scheduled to start Friday, warmed up in the bullpen after agreeing to lend a hand. In all, 37 players entered the game.
A pennant race isn’t always pretty.
“If it swings the other way, sure, you don’t sleep as well tonight,” Tracy said. “There’s a little more pressure on you tomorrow. That’s the way to set the tone for the series. We would have liked to have been out of here in nine innings but hey, we’ll take the win.”
Ian Desmond led off the 13th inning at 12:22 a.m. on Tuesday morning with a single. Espinosa’s bunt pushed the ball towards reliever Cristhian Martinez, who tossed out Desmond at second base by a step. Suzuki chopped a change-up high over the pitcher’s mound.
Shortstop Paul Janish and third baseman Chipper Jones charged the ball, but kicked it away. There was no play at first base. As Jones tried to find the ball, Espinosa rounded second and took third base. That heads-up play would prove to be the difference in the game. There were runners at the corners with one out.
With runners in scoring position, Nationals Manager Davey Johnson pulled reliever Craig Stammen back and sent Tracy to the plate. Stammen had tossed two scoreless innings and had at least one more in him. If the Nationals didn’t score, Jackson was likely his replacement in the 14th inning.
“I wasn’t doing it for heroism,” Jackson said. “But the bullpen was done. It was a game that we could possibly win.”
Which Tracy did before Jackson could enter the game, drilling a ball to Uggla’s left. Uggla dived, stopped it and popped up to his feet. By then, Espinosa, who broke home on contact, had nearly scored. Suzuki baited towards second base and stopped a few feet from first. Uggla froze. The ball squirmed out of his hand and to the ground. Everyone was safe and the game was over.