PHOENIX — Danny Espinosa walked to the plate in the top of the ninth inning at Chase Field with the Washington Nationals in a scenario that has become too familiar but still unsettling to Manager Matt Williams. The Nationals lost an early lead and another lead because of starter Jordan Zimmermann's shaky command. So the game came down to this: the Nationals trailing by one run in the top of the ninth and with three outs to spare against the Arizona Diamondbacks' closer.
Espinosa clobbered the second pitch he saw from the Diamondbacks' Addison Reed, a low fastball, into the right field seats to tie the game, pumping his fist as he rounded first base. Three batters later, and with two outs in the inning, pinch hitter Kevin Frandsen connected off Reed. Frandsen's solo home run to left field — his first since last August — put the Nationals ahead 6-5 in another dramatic come-from-behind win.
"When Espi leads off the inning, the momentum just shifts," Frandsen said. "[Monday night] was a game of momentum, the ebbs and flows on the game. That happened to be the moment I'm trying to get on base or drive a ball in the gap. I'm not a home run guy. I've only hit a few in my career. I fortunately got it in the air."
Nationals closer Rafael Soriano notched the game's final three outs, albeit a shaky final inning, two days after blowing his first save of the season. The Nationals avoided falling to .500 for the first time this season while salvaging Williams's first trip back to Arizona to face his former team thanks to late-game heroics from Espinosa and Frandsen.
"We just don't stop," Espinosa said. "There's no reason to stop, just keeping going. Just because you're down doesn't mean the game is over. Just keep going."
The Nationals also continued a season-long trend of falling behind and coming back late. Monday’s game was their 11th comeback win in 20 victories, and in 38 games overall. Williams is happy to win, even late, but the Nationals have made a habit of coming back late against team's best relievers.
"We don't want to rely on those, though," Williams said. "That's not the plan. But those guys over there battle, too. They've made a habit of coming back late in games, too. So it was a good one for us [Monday]."
Frandsen's home run was the fourth pinch-hit go-ahead homer in the ninth inning or later in Nationals history, according to Elias Sports Bureau. It helped the Nationals move on from an ugly weekend sweep in Oakland that featured some of their recurring problems.
"That was a definitely a big win," Denard Span said. "We had to get a win [Monday]. A bad series in Oakland, getting swept. Very embarrassing there."
The long road to the ninth inning began with Zimmermann's up-and-down start. Because of an off day and a slight tweak to the starting rotation with the return of Doug Fister, Zimmermann took the mound on Monday night with seven days' rest. He wasn't as sharp as normal and gave up five runs on 10 hits.
Zimmermann began the game with strong stuff and command until he began slipping in the third inning. Zimmermann's trouble started when he surrendered a one-out double to opposing pitcher Josh Collmenter. After striking out Gerardo Parra, Zimmermann left pitches over the heart of the plate and Martin Prado and Paul Goldschmidt capitalized with back-to-back doubles to tie the score at 2. A single by Miguel Montero gave Arizona a 3-2 lead and brought pitching coach Steve McCatty out of the dugout.
Despite his rough final line, Zimmermann made the game's best defensive play. With a runner on in the fourth, Parra hit a liner straight back at Zimmermann. As his leg swung around his body to follow through on his delivery, Zimmermann stuck his glove up, bent back and snared the ball. Lying on the ground, Zimmermann held up his glove to show he had made the catch.
Zimmermann, however, couldn't wriggle out of the sixth inning and gave up the Nationals' 4-3 lead. Again, he left pitches over the heart of the plate and the Diamondbacks hammered them. A.J. Pollock's two-run home run put the Diamondbacks ahead. After a two-out double, Williams removed Zimmermann from the game.
The Nationals kept the game close thanks to big hits from two of the team's scuffling hitters, Ian Desmond and Denard Span. "It's nice to see from both of them," Williams said.
Span, who entered the night with a .234 average and .284 on-base percentage, hit a triple to lead off the game. The next batter, Anthony Rendon, gave the Nats a 1-0 lead with a sacrifice fly. Desmond entered the game with only seven hits in his previous 44 at-bats with 11 strikeouts. But in the fourth inning, Desmond erased a Nationals' 3-2 deficit by crushing a change-up from Collmenter over the left-center field fence for a two-run home run.
Trailing 5-4, Span nearly added a hit that would have tied the game. With two outs and Nate McLouth on first base, Span hit a ball to right-center field that bounced over the fence. "If it stays in, he was going to score easily," Span said. But the ground-rule double meant McLouth could only advance to third. Rendon grounded out to end the inning on a close play at first after a strong throw from shortstop Chris Owings.
This, however, would set up the dramatic ninth inning, in which the Nationals came back yet again with two big home runs.
"What we were [Monday night] is how we've been all year," Frandsen said. "We're resilient. We keep fighting."