The relief sprung the rocky final innings. Jordan Zimmermann had allowed four hits, all singles, before two singles preceded Kozma’s one-out, two-run double into the left field corner in the seventh. The blow sparked a three-run inning, after which the Braves went final, letting the Nationals know they needed to win to chop away at their magic number.
“That [scoreboard] is big,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “Even with my old eyes, I can see it.”
A full, yellow moon hung behind the right field seats, and the Gateway Arch loomed behind center. The Nationals knew when they took the field they had a chance to clinch. “The finish line is in sight,” Jayson Werth said late Saturday afternoon.
The Nationals wasted no time trying to get there. With one out in the first, the Nationals pounced on Cardinals starter Kyle Lohse. Harper singled to center, the first of his three hits, making him 6 for his past 6 first-inning at-bats with two homers. Zimmerman doubled into the left field corner, and Lohse pitched around LaRoche to load the bases.
Morse smashed a low-and-away, 92-mph sinker deep to right field. The ball smacked off a facade behind the fence, pinballed off a ledge and came bouncing back on the field. First base umpire Chris Guccione signaled a fair ball, no home run.
Harper trotted home easily, but Zimmerman, having seen the ball clear the fence, did not realize a play was happening behind him. LaRoche became stuck halfway between second and third, and Morse was marooned between first and second. Second baseman Skip Schumaker caught the relay throw and raced Morse back to first base.
The play momentarily stood as a single with an out and only one run scored. Nationals players and coaches pointed to the outfield and implored umpires to review the replay. They obliged, quickly recognized their mistake and came out of the video room twirling their fingers.
The runners remaining on base started trotting home around the bases, until one of the umps halted Zimmerman. They explained that, to ensure all the runners touched each base, they had to return to their original bases before running home. Places, everyone!
Harper hopped out of the dugout. Morse had already rounded second, and he ran the bases in reverse until reached home.
“I guess I didn’t have to do that,” Morse said. “If I didn’t do it and they were like, ‘No, you’re out,’ I would never sleep again.”
His teammates hollered at him from the dugout to swing. He was not going to, he said, but Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina encouraged him to take a hack. So Morse stood in the batter’s box and acted every kid’s dream. He swung at air with a fake bat. You could almost hear Morse’s 9-year-old self thinking out loud: Here’s the pitch . . . the swing . . . grand slam!
“It was pretty cool,” Morse said. “It was pretty weird. I thought they were waiting for me to swing, and then everybody started running. It was such a crazy moment. Might as well have some fun with it.”
The four Nationals jogged around the bases and converged at home plate for high fives and hugs. Morse’s loopy grand slam had given the Nationals an instant 4-0 lead and created a new Washington baseball memory.
More memories and the playoffs are approaching. The Nationals have not yet clinched the East, but they have been battle-tested, and they have a chance tomorrow to do it without any help. They can take the title with one win, all by themselves.
“I like it,” Johnson said, a smile spreading on his face. “I’ll sleep good tonight.”