The Nationals took their first lead when Steve Lombardozzi smashed a home run to lead off the game, and they did not lead again until Morse’s double in the 11th. In between, they had so many chances to win and so many reasons to lose. They squandered rallies and blew leads, issued a bushel of walks and threw a gaggle of meatballs. But they also redeemed teammates’ mistakes and clawed until they didn’t have to anymore.
“I don’t know about you, but I got a few gray hairs,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “That was a wild one. I’m telling you, I’m worn out. I’m glad we got tomorrow off for me, not for the guys.”
Even after Morse gave the Nationals the lead, they still swerved into every pothole. They loaded the bases with one out, then stranded all three runners on Jesus Flores’s strikeout and Corey Brown’s fly to right. Tyler Clippard surrendered a leadoff home run to Corey Hart in the 11th, slicing the lead to a measly run. But Clippard secured his 20th save with help from shortstop Danny Espinosa’s diving play and rocket throw for the second out.
Solid all season, Ryan Mattheus imploded with one of the most disastrous relief appearances imaginable. He allowed four runs and three homers in 12
3 innings, stretching the Nationals’ deficit to 7-3 in the seventh and then turning a tie game into a two-run deficit in the eighth. Craig Stammen kept the Nationals alive by retiring seven consecutive batters across the eighth, ninth and 10th innings.
In the top of eighth, the Nationals took advantage of the Brewers’ land-mine bullpen, scoring four runs off Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford to tie the game. Roger Bernadina gave the Nationals new life with a two-run, opposite-field homer. Flores ripped a single and Brown pounded a double. Lombardozzi scored Flores with an RBI groundout, and Brown scooted home with the tying run when Axford threw an inside fastball for a wild pitch.
The Nationals survived an uneven start from Gio Gonzalez, who lasted six innings despite some of his worst control problems of the season. He allowed five runs, four of them earned, while pitching around five walks, two hit batters and five hits while striking out four. He hinted some of his control problems may have arisen from a tight strike zone.
“I wouldn’t want to change a damn thing I did today,” Gonzalez said. “I went after guys. I was trying to attack them. I was missing by an inch.”
Gonzalez kept the Nationals in the game, but his imprint hardly remained when it was decided.
With one out in the ninth, pinch-hitter Mark DeRosa drew a walk off Axford, bringing Morse to the plate as the tying run. Morse fell behind, 0-2, and Axford tried to chuck a fastball past him on the outside corner. Morse drilled it down the right field line.
In the dugout, Edwin Jackson, having watched balls zoom out of the park all weekend, slapped Stephen Strasburg in the shoulder and told him, “It’s gone!” Morse was not sure. He knew the ball would stay fair, but wondered if it would sneak over the fence. The stadium hushed as the ball cleared the wall.
Morse circled first bases with his left fist in the air, holding his helmet on his head. Jackson slapped Strasburg again and said, “I told you!” The Nationals had tied the score again, 9-9. The Nationals swarmed Morse when he reached the dugout. Mattheus knifed through the pack and embraced Morse with a bear hug.
Mattheus had put the Nationals in their dire position in the first place. He gave up a two-run homer off the scoreboard in center field to Rickie Weeks in the seventh. After the Nationals’ furious rally in the eighth, Johnson stuck with Mattheus. “It just matched up better for him,” Johnson said. With one out, Nori Aoki and Carlos Gomez clobbered back-to-back home runs.
“I felt like I really let the team down there today,” Mattheus said. “We had a chance to win the ballgame early. It was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders when he came through and got a big hit. It doesn’t make what I did okay, but he picked me up. That’s what good teams do.”
Mattheus could watch the end in peace. Stammen retired all six batters he faced in the ninth and 10th. He struck out three of them, including Ryan Braun flailing at a slider in the dirt to end the 10th.
“I’ve been feeling a little off for a while now,” Stammen said. “I kind of said, ‘Screw it. Let it eat.’ ”
Bryce Harper started the 11th with a walk off Veras, taking ball four on a 3-1 fastball he seemed to think was a strike. Ryan Zimmerman smacked a single to right to push Harper to third. Up came Morse, again, in the biggest spot of the game.
He knew Veras would try to make him hit into a double play. “See the ball up,” he told himself. He fell behind, 1-2, then hooked a curveball into left field. Harper trotted home and Zimmerman raced around from first.
Clippard kept the Nationals’ nerves raw, but he came through. On the final out to the game, Cesar Izturis popped up into foul territory near the first base dugout. The ball nestled into Morse’s mitt, the game secure in his hands, another inconceivable win for the Nationals.
“It’s crazy,” Morse said. “Because you never what this game has in store until the last out.”