Rendon makes you think he isn’t swinging hard until the ball screams off his bat. He drilled a line drive to the right-center field gap. The ball, his first career hit, was rolled into the home dugout. The Nationals had tied it, 2-2.
“That’s the one thing you’re going to cherish for the rest of your life,” Rendon said. “You don’t get another one. The second one doesn’t count as much as the first one.”
After five encouraging innings, Johnson rewarded Haren by letting him hit for himself. In the sixth, with the game tied at 2, Haren wilted. Starting with hitting Matt Holliday with a fastball, Haren allowed four consecutive Cardinals to reach base. Johnson trudged to the mound with the bases loaded and no outs. He asked for the ball and waved to the bullpen, asking for Craig Stammen.
“I gotta be better,” Haren said. “No one’s more frustrated than I am.”
Stammen walked into an impossible situation, but one suited for his hard sinkers. Jon Jay grounded one to LaRoche, who fired home to Kurt Suzuki before getting back to first for a 3-2-3 double play.
Baseball, apparently, could not decide if it wanted to be cruel or funny, and so it split the difference: Here came Kozma with first base open and the pitcher on deck.
It was not the same situation as last October, when Kozma came to bat with closer Jason Motte waiting behind him. Then, Johnson made the much-debated choice to pitch to him, and Kozma delivered the game-winning hit.
“All of that did flash before my mind when it was all coming up,” Johnson said, grinning.
This time, Johnson held up four fingers. Kozma took his base. Stammen dispatched Miller in five pitches and Stammen had walked over a landmine without a scratch.
In January, the Nationals signed Rafael Soriano to a two-year, $28 million contract to become their new closer. Monday, though, provided a slice of ironic timing, verified by the single cigar placed before the game in every player’s locker and on Johnson’s desk. Soriano had stayed in New York to be with his wife, who gave birth to Rafael Jr. Storen would close.
The Nationals trailed entering the ninth, but down only one Johnson turned to Storen. Of course, Kozma led off. Storen did not make the connection, or at least would not admit to it.
“The guy who stands up there, I’m going to want to strike him out regardless of who it is or whatever the situation,” Storen said. “That did not cross my mind. If it was, I shouldn’t be out there.”
Storen struck him out with a 1-2 slider, then retired the Cardinals in order. In the midst of another loss, it was one small victory for the Nationals. It was not enough, though, to take away the sting.